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Can Ohio State's D-line stay fresh vs. Alabama?

12/29/2014

NEW ORLEANS -- There's little question that Ohio State's best defensive linemen can challenge Alabama's vaunted offensive line.

Buckeyes defensive end Joey Bosa, who was the Big Ten player of the year, had 13.5 sacks this season. Michael Bennett is an All-American-caliber defensive tackle. Fellow tackle Adolphus Washington is a future pro.

It's when Ohio State has to go past those guys -- or leave them in for perhaps too long -- that things start to get interesting. And it may be right where Alabama wants things to go in Thursday's College Football Playoff at the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

"When you've got guys playing 75 plays against a 6-6, 330-pounder who can move, you're going to be pretty worn out by the fourth quarter," Bennett said. "And that's when you start seeing those eight-minute drives and stuff like that, just [them] pounding the ball."

For much of the season, the Buckeyes have had to rely on their starters logging lots of snaps. The depth of the line was hurt by Noah Spence's dismissal and some injuries. Other guys just haven't developed as much as hoped.

That meant most of the starters had to be iron men this season. Bosa, for example, estimated he played close to 90 snaps in the Penn State win. That's in stark contrast to Alabama's defensive line, which rotates as many as 10 guys per game.

"Eighty plays a game is super rough on your body, and I was feeling it toward the end of the season," Bosa said. "I just need a few series to get a breather and then get back out there."

Leading into the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin, though, Ohio State decided it needed to feature more players along the line. Rashad Frazier made his second start of the season, allowing Steve Miller to slip into a relief role at defensive end. Chris Carter and Tyquan Lewis saw time, spelling Bennett and Washington.

"We figured that was going to be a four-quarter battle, a big, heavyweight fight," Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. "So we started subbing those guys early -- when it was 7-0, when it was 14-0 -- and we didn't change because we knew we had to be good going into the fourth quarter. We're going to keep that same mentality this game."

It's fairly likely the Buckeyes won't enjoy a 59-0 laugher against Alabama like they did versus Wisconsin. Bennett said it could be more difficult for the coaching staff to pull the trigger on taking the starters out if the game is close or if the Crimson Tide have the lead.

But not doing so could also play right into Alabama's hands. This might not be the most impressive offensive line Nick Saban has had -- only one member, Arie Kouandjio, made the All-SEC team and it's questionable whether the group has any first-round NFL draft picks. Alabama's offense likes to spread things around more now, too, under coordinator Lane Kiffin.

Still, the Tide love to close things out by ramming the ball down the throat of a tired defense.

"That's one of our goals every week," right tackle Austin Shepherd said, "to keep grinding for the first three quarters and get to the fourth and wear them out. Hopefully, then they lay down for us."

Bosa hopes guys such as Frazier and Miller can spell him at times on Thursday night. But he's also had a month off and is prepared to go the distance if that's what it takes.

"I'm sure this game, I'll be out there a lot," he said. "Depth is nice, but we'll need our guys out there for most of the game, I feel like."

Bosa and Ohio State's other top defensive linemen have shown they can hold their own against anybody. They'll just need to have some gas left in the tank at the end.