Big Ten: Taylor Decker

Blocking for the nation’s best group of running backs, Big Ten offensive lines fared well last season. Will 2015 serve as a reality check around the league?

As spring practice opens in Ann Arbor and Evanston this week, we’re comparing position groups around the Big Ten. Offensive line is next on the list. For others in the series, click here:

Best of the best: Michigan State

The linchpins are back in rising junior left tackle Jack Conklin and senior center Jack Allen, both of whom will land on preseason All-America teams. The pair of Jacks spearheaded the line last year as the Spartans allowed a Big Ten-low 11 sacks, converted 49.7 percent on third down (second to Ohio State) and operated more efficiently in the red zone and in goal-to-go situations than any other Big Ten team. Donavon Clark also returns at tackle. The Spartans lose left guard Travis Jackson, a second-team all-conference pick, and versatile mainstay Connor Kruse. Brian Allen, Kodi Kieler and Miguel Machado appear ready to compete. And these guys will look even better with Connor Cook in command of the offense.

Next up: Ohio State and Wisconsin

A temptation exists to rank every OSU unit as the Big Ten’s best, and the Buckeyes aren’t far off on the offensive line. They lose only right tackle Darryl Baldwin from a group that turned dominant late last season en route to clearing a path to the national title for Ezekiel Elliott and Cardale Jones. Left tackle Taylor Decker, the lone returning starter last year, ranks among the nation’s best at his position, and right guard Pat Elflein earned all-conference honors. Center Jacoby Boren and left guard Billy Price are also back as starters.

At Wisconsin, the cupboard is considerably more empty with the departure of right guard Kyle Costigan, right tackle Rob Havenstein, both All-Big Ten picks, and left guard Dallas Lewallen. Alongside the brilliance of Melvin Gordon, this was the league’s best unit last year. Center Dan Voltz and left tackle Tyler Marz return to anchor the line in 2015. Michael Deiter is ready to go as a redshirt freshman, and the Badgers will find two more starters among a promising group of youngsters.

Sleeper: Michigan

The Wolverines weren’t bad on the line last year. Seriously. OK, at least, it was an improvement over 2013, and all five starters are back to go with, presumably, a much more well designed offensive system. With left tackle Mason Cole, who played as a true freshman, guards Graham Glasgow and Kyle Kalis, center Jack Miller and right tackle Ben Braden, Michigan looks the part. New offensive coordinator and O-line coach Tim Drevno has plenty of tools with which to work. Reserves Erik Magnuson, Logan Tuley-Tillman, Blake Bars and Patrick Kugler give Michigan a chance to develop solid depth this spring. The Wolverines should be better at running back with the addition of Ty Isaac. A breakthrough season across the front isn’t out of the question.

Problem for a contender: Penn State

It was flat-out ugly last year as the Nittany Lions allowed 44 sacks, last in the Big Ten and 121st nationally, and averaged 2.94 yards per rush – 122nd nationally. PSU lost left tackle Donovan Smith early to the NFL and left guard Miles Dieffenbach. Center Angelo Mangiro and tackle Andrew Nelson lead the group of returnees, and Penn added a pair of potential difference-makers in January in freshman Sterling Jenkins and juco transfer Paris Palmer. Four freshmen redshirted last year. Really, there’s nowhere to go but up, but Penn State needs fast improvement from its line to allow QB Christian Hackenberg time to operate. If growth here is slow, so will be Penn State’s offensive progress.

Ultimate ESPN 300 rountable: Who's next?

February, 20, 2015
Feb 20
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We've reached the end of our week of deliberation over the Ultimate ESPN 300, a list of the 300 most impactful players since 2006, based on both high school and college production. The list featured players evaluated by ESPN at both levels.

We've covered the biggest omissions in the Big Ten and the league's most impactful recruits.

Friday's rountable topic: What player in the Big Ten can we expect to see on this list next year?

Mitch Sherman: Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan

As the No. 1 inside linebacker and 13th-ranked prospect overall in the Class of 2014, McMillan has an inside track to a spot in the Ultimate 300. He’ll get there, and I think it’ll happen next year as he steps into a starting role upon the departure of middle linebacker Curtis Grant. McMillan contributed 54 tackles and 2.5 sacks as a true freshman, playing meaningful snaps on the Buckeyes’ national-title team. With another offseason, he’ll be primed for a monster sophomore year and take a big step toward claiming his spot among the many OSU linebacker greats. With little time to adjust to the college game, McMillan, at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, offered many glimpses at his star potential last year. He had a pick-six against Maryland and made 6.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Surrounded by the likes of fellow linebacker Darron Lee, defensive end Joey Bosa (No. 58 on the list) and a stacked secondary, McMillan won’t attract more than his share of attention from offenses in the Big Ten -- bad news for Ohio State opponents that plan to operate in the middle of the field.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesConnor Cook already has a stacked resume and another strong season would cement his status as one of the very best quarterbacks in school history.
Adam Rittenberg: Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook

Cook should be on this list already, despite a mostly quiet recruitment out of Walsh Jesuit High School in Ohio, which doesn't play in Ohio's top prep division. ESPN RecruitingNation had him as just the No. 57 quarterback in the 2011 class. But Cook has been one of the nation's most successful signal-callers since taking the Spartans' starting position early in the 2013 season. He's 23-3 as MSU's starter. He won top individual honors in both the 2013 Big Ten championship game and 2014 Rose Bowl. He has guided the Spartans to consecutive major bowl wins and consecutive top-5 finishes. Cook led the Big Ten in passing last season (3,214 yards) and was a semifinalist for two national awards (Maxwell, Davey O'Brien). A strong senior season could cement Cook as the best quarterback in team history and one of the better quarterbacks in recent Big Ten history. I can't imagine him not making the Ultimate 300 at the end of his career.

Brian Bennett: Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee and offensive tackle Taylor Decker

Neither guy made the Ultimate 300 this year, but they were a big reason why the Buckeyes earned championship rings. Both were ranked as three-star prospects by ESPN but have played well above that grade. Decker anchored the Ohio State offensive line as the left tackle this past season and should be a leading Outland Trophy candidate in 2015. Lee, who some initially thought might be too small to play linebacker, developed into one of the Buckeyes' top defensive playmakers as a redshirt freshman, recording 16.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. He was the defensive MVP of the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. Both Decker and Lee are already stars and champions, and next year they should be in the Ultimate 300.
The weeklong countdown of the best players in the Big Ten from 2014 continues with the next set of five, headlined by a trio of linemen.

No. 11: Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State

The anchor on the interior for an Ohio State defense that grew into a dominant unit as the season progressed, Bennett played his best as his senior season neared an end. He accumulated five of his seven sacks and 9.5 of 14 tackles behind the line of scrimmage in November and the Big Ten championship game. By the time the Buckeyes controlled seemingly unstoppable Alabama and Oregon, Bennett was a force as part of a ferocious front four that made life much easier for the play-making linebackers and defensive backs behind him.

No. 12: Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa

A rock of consistency amid an up-and-down Iowa offense, Scherff did his part to contribute to the Hawkeyes' success. The Outland Trophy winner couldn't score touchdowns, though he would have gladly tried if given the chance. Scherff displayed his legendary strength and quick feet in protecting the blind side of Jake Rudock. When the Iowa offense hummed against Indiana, Northwestern and Illinois, Scherff was at the center of it.

No. 13: Taylor Decker, OT, Ohio State

The lone returning starter on an Ohio State offensive line that developed from a potential liability into a fearsome five-some over 15 games, Decker served as a cornerstone of the Buckeyes' success. Over the final four games, against Michigan, Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon, Ohio State rushed for 15 touchdowns. Credit Ezekiel Elliott -- but also Decker, a 6-foot-7 junior, and the line for punishing opponents as games grew long. And with inexperienced quarterbacks taking snaps all season, it was Decker who provided a security blanket in pass protection.

No. 14: Mike Hull, LB, Penn State

Hull didn't just lead the Nittany Lions in tackles as a senior. He led the Big Ten by a margin of 28 stops. A tackling machine, he served as the “heart and soul,” according to defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, of a group that carried PSU through 2014. Led by Hull and his 140 tackles, the defense led the Big Ten in yards allowed per game and play and in scoring, among numerous other categories. The sure-handed Hull was always in place to clean up. He contributed 10.5 tackles for losses and excelled in a leadership role.

No. 15: Tony Lippett, WR, Michigan State

Voted the team MVP and Big Ten receiver of the year, Lippett leaves MSU after catching 65 passes for a league-best 1,198 yards and 11 touchdowns. Firmly established as Connor Cook's top target, Lippett drew the attention of every MSU foe but often came up big against the best competition; against Oregon, for instance, he caught a career-best 11 passes. And Lippett did more than just catch passes. He started at cornerback on Senior Day against Rutgers and saw extensive time on defense against Penn State.

Big Ten all-bowl team

January, 16, 2015
Jan 16
11:00
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The Big Ten played in 10 bowl games -- 11 if you count the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T. We've come up with our list of the league's best postseason performers. The strategy here was as follows: When in doubt, choose a Buckeye. There is lots of scarlet and gray on our Big Ten all-bowl team, as you'd expect. Here it is:

Offense

QB: Christian Hackenberg, Penn State: Bouncing back from an at times rough sophomore season, Hackenberg reminded everyone of his talent in his team's 31-30 New Era Pinstripe Bowl win over Boston College. He threw for 371 yards and a season-high four touchdowns with no interceptions.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesOhio State running back Ezekiel Elliott left defenders grasping at air this postseason.
RB: Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State: The offensive MVP of both the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the national championship game, Elliott blossomed into a superstar this postseason. He ran for 476 yards and six touchdowns in the two playoff wins, including a four-touchdown night against Oregon.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: The Badgers star capped his career in style, by running for 251 yards and three touchdowns in Wisconsin's Outback Bowl win over Auburn. Gordon finished the season with 2,587 rushing yards, the second most in FBS history.

WR: Devin Smith, Ohio State: The Buckeyes' big-play threat became even more dangerous with Cardale Jones slinging it to him in the postseason. He had two catches for 87 yards and a score against Alabama and one for 45 yards against Oregon, but defenses always had to account for Smith.

WR: Chris Godwin, Penn State: The Nittany Lions freshman had 198 total receiving yards on the season before he caught seven balls for 140 yards and a touchdown in the win over Boston College.

TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota: Williams had seven receptions for 98 yards and a score in his team's Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl loss to Missouri. His hurdle over a Tigers defensive back en route to a 54-yard score was one of the best plays of bowl season.

OL: Taylor Decker, Ohio State: The Buckeyes dominated the line of scrimmage against Alabama and Oregon, and their junior left tackle was a huge reason for that.

OL: Pat Elflein, Ohio State: Elflein was terrific from his guard position, as the Buckeyes were able to run the ball extremely well in both playoff games.

OL: Kodi Kieler, Michigan State: Thrust into the starting lineup at right tackle due to an injury, Kieler graded out as the Spartans' top offensive linemen in their 42-41 Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic win over Baylor. His hustle on a Baylor interception drew a penalty that might have saved the game.

OL: Jack Allen, Michigan State: The center and leader of the Spartans' line helped pave room for 552 yards and 29 first downs against Baylor.

OL: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: The Badgers ran for 400 yards against Auburn, and Costigan helped lead the way.

Defense

DL: Joey Bosa, Ohio State
DL: Michael Bennett, Ohio State
DL: Adolphus Washington, Ohio State

Yep, we've got three Buckeyes here (and you could make a case for Steve Miller, who had a pick-six versus Alabama). The Ohio State defensive line was great in both playoff games at both holding up against the run and generating pressure on the quarterback, and the starters proved to be iron men in both games.

DL: Anthony Zettel, Penn State: Zettel had a pair of tackles for loss against Boston College to finish his spectacular season at defensive tackle for the Nittany Lions.

LB: Darron Lee, Ohio State: The defensive MVP of the Sugar Bowl became a household name this January. Only a redshirt freshman, Lee could terrorize Big Ten offenses for a long time.

LB: Curtis Grant, Ohio State: Yet another Buckeyes defender. Grant led the team in tackles in the Sugar Bowl and was strong from his middle linebacker position when it mattered most.

LB: Joe Schobert, Wisconsin: Schobert collected three tackles for loss in Wisconsin's win over Auburn.

CB: Doran Grant, Ohio State: He corralled Alabama stud receiver Amari Cooper in the Sugar Bowl and held Cooper to his second-lowest yardage total against an FBS team this season.

CB: Jordan Lucas, Penn State: Boston College passed for only 97 yards on 20 attempts versus the Nittany Lions. Lucas also added seven tackles and a sack in the victory.

S: Vonn Bell, Ohio State: Hey, look, another Buckeye. Bell added to Ohio State's outstanding defensive effort from his safety position by grabbing an interception against Alabama and collecting 14 tackles in the two playoff games.

S: Lorenzo Waters, Rutgers: He was a busy man in his team's 40-21 Quick Lane Bowl win over North Carolina, with 14 tackles, two fumble recoveries and a blocked field goal.

Specialists

K: Rafael Gaglianone, Wisconsin: The Brazilian freshman kicked a 29-yard field goal with seven seconds left to send the game against Auburn into overtime, and he won it with a 25-yarder in the first extra period.

P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State: He averaged 46.5 yards on six punts against Alabama and 42 yards on three attempts against Oregon.

KR: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: In his final game with the Huskers, Abdullah returned three kicks for 120 yards, including a 49-yarder, in Nebraska's 45-42 National University Holiday Bowl loss to USC.
Eleven players from nine different Big Ten schools decided to leave a year of college eligibility on the table and enter the NFL draft this spring. There were also some notable decisions accompanied by news conferences and surprise announcements to stay put for at least one more season.

With the window for underclassmen to declare for the NFL draft officially closed (those that did decide to make the jump can still change their minds over the weekend), it’s time to sort through which teams lost the most and which teams can declare victory.

Winners
1. Ohio State
Many of the players who led the Buckeyes to a national title this season are too young to consider NFL riches this year. Ohio State didn’t have a single player with college eligibility remaining declare for the draft this year. The three players that passed up a safe bet to be drafted are Taylor Decker, the cornerstone of a much improved offensive line; defensive lineman Adolphus Washington; and, of course, quarterback Cardale Jones, who held a news conference Thursday afternoon to announce that he would be coming back to finish his degree in Columbus.

The return of that trio ensures that Ohio State will once again be intimidating in the trenches and equipped with unprecedented depth at the quarterback position. Jones will battle with J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller, who was also eligible to enter the draft, for a starting spot in the fall. Urban Meyer will have a hard time duplicating this retention rate in the next couple of years, but having zero early draft entrants on a national championship team bodes well for the Buckeyes’ immediate future.

2. Michigan State
Before Jones declared his intentions to return, Michigan State was in the running for the best in-house recruiting job of the year. Top players on both sides of the ball, quarterback Connor Cook and defensive end Shilique Calhoun, return to give the Spartans a legitimate shot at a third straight top-5 finish.

Cook can bring consistency to an offense that loses its top rusher and its top receiver this season. Calhoun helps to offset the loss of fellow defensive end Marcus Rush. Their production and leadership should give a new crop of players time to get acclimated. Michigan State will have to replace its No. 1 cornerback in Trae Waynes, who opted to jump to the NFL. Waynes may be the first cornerback taken in draft. He leaves the Spartans with a hole to fill in a crucial position on defense.

3. Rutgers
Beyond the top two programs in the conference, the Scarlet Knights were the only team to retain a sure-thing draft pick in wide receiver Leonte Carroo. As a junior, Carroo led the nation with 19.7 yards per catch and led his team with 10 receiving touchdowns. His decision to stay is even more of a coup when considering that quarterback Gary Nova, who has been throwing passes to Carroo since their high school days at Don Bosco Prep, graduated at the end of the 2014 season.

Carroo will be an important security blanket for whoever takes Nova’s place, especially since tight end Tyler Kroft opted to leave school after his junior season. Kroft caught only 24 passes for 269 yards this season, but his 6-foot-6, 240-pound frame will be missed in Piscataway.

Losers
1. Penn State
The Nittany Lions are sending three underclassmen to the draft this year. No other school in the conference has more than one player leaving early. Tight end Jesse James, defensive end Deion Barnes and offensive tackle Donovan Smith all declared for the draft this year.

Barnes, a Big Ten honorable mention pick, made 12.5 tackles for loss and six sacks this season as a leader of one of the conference’s best front-seven units. James (6-foot-7, 254 pounds) has NFL size, but still ranks behind Kroft and Minnesota’s Maxx Williams as a draft prospect. Smith was easily Penn State’s most experienced offensive lineman. Attrition is to be expected during a coaching change, but James Franklin’s team lost more experience in key areas than any other program in the Big Ten this year.

2. Indiana
While not nearly as surprising as some of Penn State’s departures, the loss of Tevin Coleman at Indiana will be hard to weather. Coleman ran for 2,036 yards against defenses that didn’t need to worry about a passing attack for most of the season. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon edged Coleman on the postseason award circuit, but few players were more essential to their teams this season than the Hoosiers’ junior running back.

No one else on the roster was a serious candidate to leave for the next level. No one in Bloomington will begrudge Coleman for moving on. Nonetheless, his absence will be felt at Indiana next season.

3. Nebraska
Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory is expected to be the first Big Ten player off the draft board this season. He's a top-5 pick, according to Mel Kiper's first mock draft this week. While his leap to the NFL appears to be a smart move, he will be missed as a pass-rusher in Lincoln.

Gregory dropped off slightly this season on the stat sheet after winning the Cornhuskers' defensive MVP award as a sophomore. Most of that decline can be attributed to the extra attention he received from opposing offenses all year. He finished the season with seven sacks and 10 tackles for loss. The return of defensive tackle Maliek Collins and defensive end Greg McMullen (both will be juniors in 2015) gives Nebraska experience on the line and helps soften the blow of Gregory's exit.

4. Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Maryland
All four of these schools will lose their most talented player a year early. Wisconsin has the most production to replace with Gordon, but also is in the best shape to replace him with a sturdy offensive line and experienced backup in Corey Clement. Devin Funchess from Michigan has great size but was underwhelming during a down year for the Wolverines. After catching three touchdown passes in the first half of the season opener, Funchess scored only once more the rest of the season. Minnesota and Maryland lose their best receivers too -- Maxx Williams and Stefon Diggs, respectively -- but neither was tied inextricably to his team’s ability to move the ball like Coleman or Gordon were during the past season.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Another year may well give Taylor Decker’s professional stock a lift.

That’s not guaranteed, obviously. But if there is such a thing as a stone-cold lock, the boost Ohio State figures to receive from having the starting left tackle around for one more season might just qualify.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Decker
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsTaylor Decker's leadership and ability are invaluable to the Buckeyes' offensive line.
 Decker’s impact goes far beyond the crucial position he holds down for the No. 4 Buckeyes, the powerful presence he provides as both a road-clearing blocker, the wall he provides as protector in the passing game or his two years of first-team experience up front. Off the field, he might be even better, and with Urban Meyer always looking for his next great leader, it’s already a safe bet that Decker will become the prime example for work ethic, the voice of the program and a surefire captain heading into his senior season.

Though, of course, he’s not yet done with his work as a junior with the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T set for Monday night against No. 2 Oregon.

“I wasn’t really wanting to get into that prior to this game, but I’m coming back for my senior year,” Decker said. “You know, personally, growing up I wanted to play here and this is my first year at a new position, and I’ve seen projections of where I could go, but I think for the most part I’m kind of under the radar. So, I think another year, barring something drastic happening, can only benefit me.

“You know, my draft stock can only go up, and I have goals that I haven’t accomplished yet here.”

Since his decision has been made prior to the title game, it’s safe to assume that those accomplishments are probably personal, so Decker declined to go into any detail about what they might be for fear of calling too much attention to himself.

That’s yet another example of the team-first approach that has already made Decker so invaluable to the Buckeyes this season, even if for the most part seniors like Michael Bennett and Evan Spencer have carried the torch and set the tone on the run to a Big Ten title and a victory in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

But Decker’s impact as the only returning starter on an offensive line that was effectively rebuilt entirely from a year ago shouldn’t be overlooked, particularly given the early struggles for the unit as Ohio State was shockingly upset by Virginia Tech in Week 2. He called back to his own transition into the lineup the previous season and the rude awakening to the demands of playing a full-time role he had as a sophomore to help bring along his inexperienced teammates. That, in some ways, gave offensive line coach Ed Warinner another assistant to help speed up the process on the practice field and in games. And while it has already given him a valuable leadership role within that group, it seems like a safe bet to expand to the rest of the team moving forward.

Certainly, his contributions on the field are nothing to scoff at either. And with defensive tackle Adolphus Washington and postseason superstar quarterback Cardale Jones both joining him this week in expressing their desire to return, the Buckeyes appear to pretty much be retaining all the pieces they need to make another push for a championship again next year.

“When I was in high school, I didn’t think it was going to happen, because I didn’t really get any interest from here,” Decker said. “But it was something that I really wanted, and to be given that opportunity, I’ve just done everything I can to be successful. You know, it is a really good feeling and gratifying when you accomplish something huge like that, and I’ve loved my time here. I like being here, I like playing for Ohio State and representing this university, and that’s important to me.

“I love playing with my friends, on the line especially. Once I leave here, I can never come back.”

So Decker is in no hurry to find the exit. And however that might help him individually, it figures to benefit the Buckeyes even more.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Taylor Decker heard the doubters after Ohio State's offensive line couldn't block Virginia Tech in a Week 2 loss.

"A lot of people were against us after that loss," the junior left tackle said. "A lot of people said we couldn't play at this level, that we weren't good enough."

The group entered the 2014 season as a major question mark after losing four starters, and the Virginia Tech game seemed to solidify those concerns. The Buckeyes gave up seven sacks and rushed for just 108 yards on 40 carries against the Hokies' aggressive scheme.

[+] EnlargeJacoby Boren
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsCenter Jacoby Boren (50) hasn't let being undersized stop him from being a force. "He plays mad," teammate Taylor Decker said.
But Ohio State is playing for the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T on Monday night versus Oregon in large part because its offensive line has developed into one of the best in the nation. That was obvious in last week's 42-35 semifinal win over Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, even though skeptics said the Buckeyes couldn't run up the middle against the Crimson Tide's massive defensive front.

"Everybody kept saying that," center Jacoby Boren said. "But ultimately, we knew that's something we take pride in, and we had confidence in knowing we would be able to do it."

Ohio State ran for 281 yards versus Alabama, which led the FBS in rushing defense during the regular season. The Crimson Tide hadn't allowed a 100-yard rusher all season until Ezekiel Elliott set a Sugar Bowl record with 230 yards. Elliott rumbled for 220 yards in his previous game against Wisconsin, another team that had one of the country's best rush defenses before getting bulldozed by the Buckeyes.

"The offensive line is opening up big holes for me," Elliott said.

The nature of Urban Meyer's offense is a power run game based out of a spread set, and it all starts with a strong effort up front. It took a while for this year's unit to jell because of youth and inexperience, but it is now operating at peak efficiency.

"No question, this is as well as they have played," Meyer said Tuesday.

This group was a bit more of a project than Meyer's first two O-lines in Columbus. It includes a fifth-year senior in right tackle Darryl Baldwin, who began his career on the defensive line and had never started before this year. There's a redshirt freshman in Billy Price at left guard and a sophomore in right guard Pat Elflein, who proved himself in an emergency start in last year's Big Ten title game.

The line is perhaps personified by Boren, an undersized junior who Meyer thought might project as a fullback when he first saw him. Ohio State brought in Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay this summer as its potential starting center, but Boren just worked even harder to beat him out. That was nothing new for him. Boren is such a grinder that he helped plow snow all night for his family's business last winter, showing up for 6 a.m. workouts on little or no sleep.

"Yeah, maybe he's not as tall or as heavy as you want him to be," Decker said. "But you can't teach that scrappiness, that edge he has to him. He plays mad. I think that's probably just a product of people telling him he can't do things. Without him, our offensive line wouldn't play as well as where we're at."

Decker is the star of the group, a 6-foot-7 road grader who was the only returning starter from 2013. Yet even he had to make adjustments this year as he moved from right to left tackle. Decker is an outgoing animal sciences major who interned at the Columbus Zoo last year and aspires to wrangle big cats one day when his playing days are done. For now, he's taming opposing pass-rushers.

"I would take him over any tackle in college football," Boren said. "I think he's done a great job out there."

The season didn't start out great for the offensive line, but Decker said the players never listened to critics or lost confidence. That's because they believed in position coach Ed Warriner. And rightly so. Warriner is a big reason three starters from last year's line -- Jack Mewhort, Andrew Norwell and Corey Linsley -- started in the NFL as rookies. Meyer will likely promote Warriner to offensive coordinator to replace Tom Herman after the national title game.

Just as Ohio State keeps pumping out successful quarterbacks, there also is now a tradition for "The Slobs," as Norwell nicknamed the offensive line last year.

"We always talk about theory and testimony," Meyer said, "and when Ed Warriner teaches an offensive lineman, that's the way it's supposed to be, it's not theory anymore."

The last challenge for this O-line comes against Oregon, which presents different obstacles than Alabama did. The Ducks show a lot of odd-man fronts, and while their front doesn't have the bulk of the Crimson Tide, they have speed and length -- especially with defensive ends Arik Armstead (6-8) and DeForest Buckner (6-7).

"We can't get a lot of double-teams, and that's kind of our strength as an offensive line," Decker said. "If people line up and play four down, we're going to kill them.

"So that makes it hard, because there are a lot of one-on-one base blocks, and they have long athletes pretty much across the board. They extend off blocks well, they use their hands well and they shed blockers well. They're going to be flying all over the field. But without a doubt, I think we'll be able to move the ball and score on them."

No one should be skeptical of this offensive line's ability anymore.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer noticed the stat recently and mentioned it to his players this week. Seven players from last year's Ohio State team that went 12-2 and lost in the Orange Bowl were starters in the NFL this season.

"I don't know if that's ever been done before," Meyer said Tuesday. "In the history of college football, I'd like to know if that's ever been done. That tells you how good that team was last year."

The loss of so many talented players from the 2013 team -- including underclassmen Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby --is a big reason Meyer thought the Buckeyes might need until the 2015 season to compete seriously for a national title. Yet here they are now, playing Oregon on Monday night for the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonSophomore Ezekiel Elliott leads a bounty of underclassmen who play major roles for the Buckeyes.
And that raises the question: If Ohio State can make it to the brink of a title a year ahead of schedule,then what does the future hold for the Buckeyes? This is, remember, an incredibly young group anchored by freshmen and sophomores, who make up half of the two-deep.

"It is," said redshirt freshman linebacker Darron Lee, who was the Allstate Sugar Bowl defensive MVP. "But I can sit here and tell you that there's other guys you haven't even seen yet that are going to be really, really good football players. Guys from the '14 [recruiting class] especially. You haven't really even seen anything yet."

That's a sobering proposition for the rest of the Big Ten, and the nation at large. Ohio State will lose a handful of valuable seniors, such as defensive tackle Michael Bennett, wide receiver Devin Smith and cornerback Doran Grant. But top draft-eligible juniors Adolphus Washington and Taylor Decker have said they are returning, and the core of this team is made up of first- and second-year guys. Ohio State is churning out star quarterbacks like they're on an assembly line and managed to get this far despite using its third-stringer in two postseason games.

So even though Meyer is 37-3 in three years at Ohio State, this could be just the start of a serious run in Columbus. One Buckeyes player, sophomore H-back Dontre Wilson, already has thrown out the word "dynasty." Freshman defensive back Eli Apple told Cleveland.com that "if we don't win two or more championships, we didn't get our jobs done."

"If everybody buys into the coaches' way like they are doing and people get a little bit more mature and smarter about the game, then, yeah, I could see it happening," safety Tyvis Powell said. "The coaches have a great plan and it works. If everybody just follows the plan, it could be a dynasty."

Saying it and actually accomplishing it are two different matters, of course. Parity has never been greater in college football, and the arrival of the playoff has made winning the national title that much more difficult even as it has increased access to the championship (the Buckeyes would never have been in this position this season, of course, under the old BCS system). Alabama could claim a dynasty after winning three national titles since 2009, but the Crimson Tide got bounced by Ohio State in the semifinal round. Florida State won 27 games in a row before getting crushed by Oregon.

Ohio State's path to the playoff should get more difficult in an improved Big Ten, especially in the East Division where Michigan State still looms, Michigan should grow much more competitive under Jim Harbaugh, and Penn State figures to bounce back. Meyer also had things rolling at Florida and won two titles in three years before burning himself out. He says he's much healthier now, though, and if his relaxed, joking manner at Tuesday's media day news conference in Columbus was any indication, he's not driving himself toward another early retirement.

There's still the not-so-small matter of beating Oregon on Monday at Jerry World, and the Buckeyes are underdogs in that game. But if they can win this title, a year ahead of schedule, then the future could have a decided scarlet and gray tint.

"Being a young team, we can make a statement by winning a national championship and going to next year," redshirt freshman receiver Jalin Marshall said. "We've only just reached the top of the mountain. It's not over yet."
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NEW ORLEANS -- Trophy in hand, a victory T-shirt thrown on over his pads and a smirk on his face, Darron Lee arrived back at the Ohio State locker room on the back of a golf cart.

“Underdogs again,” the freshman linebacker said, shaking his head. "The whole world had us losing this one, right? No shocker, no shocker."

The surprise at this point might actually be if the Buckeyes didn't deliver when they weren't expected to win.

Betting against the Buckeyes certainly hasn’t been a winning proposition lately, and writing them off has become one of the most dangerous things to do for a team that has made a habit of overcoming adversity and proving people wrong.

[+] EnlargeOhio State celebration
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesGo ahead, keep doubting the Buckeyes. They'll keep winning big games.
No. 1 Alabama became Ohio State's latest victim in a stunning 42-35 win in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Thursday night, putting the No. 4 Buckeyes on the brink of a national championship just a few months after being almost universally dismissed as a contender.

They weren’t supposed to be able to overcome the loss of quarterback Braxton Miller in August. They plugged in not one, but two different passers and kept right on rolling to a Big Ten title with J.T. Barrett and then Cardale Jones leading the attack, the latter now undefeated in two postseason games that double as the only starts of his career.

They weren’t supposed to be part of the four-team College Football Playoff field after losing at home in Week 2 to Virginia Tech. But all those inexperienced players who were overwhelmed early in the season zipped through the learning curve, with a host of freshmen and sophomores delivering for the Buckeyes ahead of schedule, led by game-breaking, running back sophomore Ezekiel Elliott.

And they weren’t picked to win on the road at Michigan State in November, in the conference title game against Wisconsin last month or in a matchup with the mighty SEC on Thursday with a berth in the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T on the line.

But one after another, the doubts have been silenced and Ohio State has proved it once again belongs on the biggest stage in the game -- where in all likelihood it will have its chances of beating Oregon on Jan. 12 questioned, just like normal.

“Ohio State is never an underdog,” left tackle Taylor Decker said. “Everybody else can say that, but we never believed that. We know we can play with any team in the country, and any team in the country knows that we can play with them.

“People said we didn’t have a chance. People have been saying that all year, but it hasn’t got into this locker room.”

The players inside it have clearly developed a chip on their shoulder along the way, and they poured their frustration out on the Crimson Tide.

Of course, the Buckeyes did have to make their own odds a little longer one more time, digging a 15-point hole in the middle of the second quarter and looking like they truly weren’t ready for prime time.

But Jones overcame a shaky start that included an interception by bouncing back to throw for 243 yards and a touchdown while adding 43 yards on the ground. Elliott shook off an early fumble by gashing the normally stout Alabama defense for 230 yards and a pair of scores on the way to offensive MVP honors. And the other guy clutching an individual trophy and riding next to him on that golf cart in a hallway deep in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome sparked a defense that was hit for some big plays in the first half with Lee flying around to make three tackles for loss and rack up a couple of sacks.

“Alabama plays great football, but so do we,” defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “Everybody that was saying that we couldn’t win, I’m wondering, ‘Are you watching film?’ When we watch film, we can their weaknesses and we can see where we can expose them. That’s what we did.

“You can’t help but hear it sometimes, and we’re not excited to be the underdogs. It’s actually kind of annoying. We do what we do and we prove what we prove, and for one reason or another, it comes out that we’re not good enough somehow. That’s frustrating, but it gives us more intensity, more fuel and it’s worked out so far.”

The fire couldn’t possibly be burning any hotter for the Buckeyes. And now they get one more chance to play the role of spoiler, this time with a national championship suddenly within reach.
With all due respect to the quarterbacks and other skill position players, the Allstate Sugar Bowl will ultimately come down to who wins the battle of the trenches.

If Ohio State can’t protect Cardale Jones, his youth will show.

If Alabama can’t give Blake Sims a clean pocket, he could struggle, too.

So which team has the edge in the battle of offensive line versus defensive line? Big Ten reporter Austin Ward and SEC reporter Alex Scarborough preview the matchup.

 Alabama OL: This isn’t the Alabama offensive line of two years ago, the one that consistently moved the line of scrimmage four and five yards ahead with each snap. Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker have long since left the building. But while this season’s group hasn’t met that lofty standard, it has exceeded the nationally average. Just look at the past four games when the line surrendered only four sacks. And that was with a less-than-100-percent Cam Robinson at left tackle, who should be healthy again after a few weeks of rest. Robinson is still a true freshman, though, and starting right guard Leon Brown has been inconsistent, drawing penalties at some inopportune moments. -- Scarborough

Ohio State DL: The Buckeyes might not have lived up to the preseason hype as the best unit in the nation after losing star defensive end Noah Spence for the entire season (second failed drug test), but they’re pretty close. With three more surefire, high-round draft picks in the starting lineup, including perhaps the most disruptive pass-rusher in the country in sophomore Joey Bosa, there’s still no shortage of talent up front. Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington make life miserable on the inside, and Bosa has shown signs of becoming a more complete, even more frightening defensive end late in his second year with the program. -- Ward

Advantage: It’s awfully close, but give the slight edge to Ohio State, which might have the best lineman on the field in Bosa.

 Ohio State OL: There was plenty of growing up to do for an offensive line that was replacing four starters while also moving the only veteran with first-team experience to a new position. But the Buckeyes zipped through the learning curve. The unit is virtually unrecognizable at this point when compared to the one that struggled mightily in a Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech. Left tackle Taylor Decker emerged as a cornerstone for Ohio State. He has both on-field ability and is a respected leader who helped usher those new starters through a rough patch and into players capable of keeping the highest-scoring attack in the Big Ten rolling. -- Ward

Alabama DL: Everyone who watched this team closely and followed its recruiting exploits over the past few years knew that this promised to be one of the most deep and talented D-lines in Nick Saban’s time at Alabama. Saban, of course, scoffed at the idea, and for the first few weeks of the season he looked to be right as the unit largely underperformed. But somewhere along the way things kicked it into gear. A'Shawn Robinson returned to his freshman All-American form, anchoring the interior of the line, and Jonathan Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson and others pitched in at defensive end. Throw in hybrid end/linebackers Ryan Anderson and Xavier Dickson, and Alabama has a wealth of options to rush the passer. -- Scarborough

Advantage: Another close call with both units steadily improving throughout the year, but we’ll give the nod to Alabama’s depth and ability to roll in fresh linemen.

ESPN.com's All-Big Ten team

December, 12, 2014
12/12/14
9:00
AM ET
The Big Ten unveiled its official all-league teams last week, but we have our own thoughts and choices. Here is the ESPN.com All-Big Ten team for 2014:

Offense

QB: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: Barrett broke the Big Ten single-season record for touchdowns produced with 45. He would have added to that total if not for a broken ankle in the regular-season finale vs. Michigan.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: All he did was lead the FBS in rushing, break the Big Ten single-season rushing record and earn the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year honors.

RB: Tevin Coleman, Indiana: Coleman joined Gordon as the only other player in the country to top 2,000 yards; he would have been a serious Heisman contender in another year or on a more successful team.

WR: Tony Lippett, Michigan State: The Big Ten’s receiver of the year led the league with 1,124 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.

WR: Leonte Carroo, Rutgers: Carroo joined Lippett at over 1,000 yards and averaged 19.7 yards per catch.

TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota: A John Mackey Award finalist, Williams was the Golden Gophers’ top receiver and crucial cog in their run game.

OT: Taylor Decker, Ohio State: Anchored a Buckeyes offensive line that developed into one of the league’s best over the course of the season.

OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa: He was named the Big Ten offensive lineman of the year and is a surefire NFL first-round draft pick.

C: Jack Allen, Michigan State: The Spartans gave up fewer sacks (10) than any Big Ten club and had one of the league’s top offenses with Allen at the point of attack.

G: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: An ESPN All-American, Costigan helped pave the way for Gordon’s record-breaking runs.

G: Pat Elflein, Ohio State: He was a sturdy performer all season on the Buckeyes’ line as the offense scored at a rapid pace.

Defense

DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State: The Big Ten defensive player of the year led the league in sacks (13.5) and tackles for loss (20) and tied for the lead with four forced fumbles.

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: After a quiet start, Calhoun got back to his dominating ways and finished with 6.5 sacks.

DT: Anthony Zettel, Penn State: With eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss from the defensive tackle position, Zettel was the most disruptive interior lineman in the conference.

DT: Louis Trinca-Pasat, Iowa: LTP was a pleasant surprise for the Hawkeyes, leading the team with 11 tackles for loss and adding 6.5 sacks.

LB: Mike Hull, Penn State: Hull was the Big Ten linebacker of the year and led the league with 134 tackles.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan: Ryan turned in a strong senior season with 112 tackles and 14 tackles for loss.

LB: Derek Landisch, Wisconsin: Any one of the Badgers’ four “Chevy Bad Boys” linebackers could have made the first team, but Landisch led the team with nine sacks and 16 tackles for loss.

DB: William Likely, Maryland: A big-play machine, Likely grabbed six interceptions and scored touchdowns on two of them.

DB: Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Minnesota: Like Likely, he was always in the middle of the action with four picks and a key strip late to seal the Nebraska win.

DB: Trae Waynes, Michigan State: Probably the best pure cover guy in the league, Waynes is asked to do a whole lot as the point man in the Spartans' "No Fly Zone."

DB: Michael Caputo, Wisconsin: Caputo was the leader from his safety spot for a defense that was the best in the league during the regular season; he finished with 99 tackles.

Specialists

K: Brad Craddock, Maryland: The Big Ten kicker of the year made his first 18 field goals this season, including a 57-yarder and a game-winner at Penn State.

P: Peter Mortell, Minnesota: Mortell was a field-position weapon for the Gophers, leading the league with a 45.5-yard average per attempt

PR: De'Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska: The freshman scored three touchdowns on punt returns and had a preposterous 17.8 yard average for the season.

All-purpose: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: We had to find a spot for Abdullah on the team, and since he returned kicks and was extremely versatile as a running back, this seemed like a good spot.

INDIANAPOLIS -- The debate will continue until the College Football Playoff selection committee reveals its picks for the four-team field, and the controversy surely won't stop then.

Does No. 5 Ohio State belong in the playoff over Big 12 co-champions TCU and Baylor? Good luck to the committee figuring that out. But as far as closing arguments go, the Buckeyes couldn't have made a stronger case.

In a stunningly easy 59-0 victory over No. 13 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, Ohio State came as close to playing a perfect game as you'll likely see. Despite a new starting quarterback, the Buckeyes eviscerated a Badgers defense that came into the game ranked No. 2 in the FBS. They turned Heisman Trophy candidate Melvin Gordon into a plodder and held him to just 76 yards on 26 carries. They piled up 558 yards and did not commit a turnover. Even Cameron Johnston's punting was spectacular.

"If that wasn't one of the four best football teams tonight," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said amid the celebratory postgame confetti, "then I don't know what you're looking for."

What made the performance all the more remarkable was how Ohio State overcame some potentially crippling adversity to get it done.

Starting quarterback J.T. Barrett broke his ankle last week against Michigan and watched the game from a wheeled cart on the sideline. Yet the Buckeyes just kept rolling with first-time starter Cardale Jones.

[+] EnlargeCardale Jones
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesFirst-time starter Cardale Jones led Ohio State to the Big Ten title. He completed 12 of 17 passes for 257 yards and three scores and was named the game's MVP.
Jones finished 12-of-17 for 257 yards and three touchdowns and was named the game's MVP. Jones said he didn't feel nervous going into the game, despite debuting with a championship and possible playoff spot on the line.

"He's just Cardale -- he's always just a happy, fun, silly guy," left tackle Taylor Decker said. "We knew we had to raise our level of play around him, and it ended up he played an amazing game. I don't know how he managed all that, but he did."

Ohio State has somehow managed to replace two star quarterbacks on the fly this season. At this point, you have to believe fourth-string quarterback Stephen Collier would be a Heisman candidate if he were thrust into action.

"It's the culture," offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "I think Cardale understands that he had a responsibility to not just the team in general but that [quarterback] room. He had two guys in that room that had done amazing things at this position for this university, and he took that responsibility very, very seriously. He prepared as hard as I've seen a quarterback prepare this week."

Meanwhile, the Buckeyes defense -- which had struggled against top Big Ten running backs this season -- managed to check Gordon and not allow much in the passing game, either. The defensive effort came just days after the team attended the funeral of walk-on defensive lineman Kosta Karageorge, who was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Defensive tackle Michael Bennett, who was a pallbearer at the funeral, wore Karageorge's No. 53 for the game and had one of the best games of his career.

"I felt like we had a guardian angel out there," defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. "Kosta was our guide. We went out there and did it for him."

Jones won the MVP trophy, but the honor could have just as easily gone to several Buckeyes, including receiver Devin Smith (four catches, 137 yards, three touchdowns), tailback Ezekiel Elliott (220 rushing yards, two scores) or any number of defensive standouts. Everyone played an All-American. That's how complete a performance it was.

The question remains: Was it enough? Head coach Urban Meyer said the selection committee has a tough job ahead of it.

"All I can speak to is, I've been around teams that have competed for and won national championships," Meyer said. "This team -- the way it's playing right now -- is one of the top teams in America."

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith was a little more forceful in his comments and said the Buckeyes absolutely ought to be in the playoff. Asked what separates them from TCU and Baylor, Smith answered, "We're better."

"The football people on that committee, who watched that game through football eyes, know that they saw a championship team that deserves to be in," Smith said.

During the fourth quarter, Ohio State fans began chanting "We want 'Bama!'" After the game, Jones and a handful of players celebrated with roses atop their ears; the only way the Buckeyes are going to the Rose Bowl is if they play Oregon. If the selection committee keeps them at No. 5, they're likely headed to the Cotton Bowl.

The destination didn't matter so much in the immediate aftermath of Saturday's game. Ohio State had won a championship -- its first Big Ten title under Meyer -- while avenging last year's crushing loss here to Michigan State.

"I really can't explain that feeling," Jones said. "I want that feeling again. Me and my teammates, we would do anything for that feeling again."

The Buckeyes might or might not get their chance to win another championship this season. But they sure presented an airtight closing argument.
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Reaction to All-B1G teams, awards

December, 1, 2014
12/01/14
7:15
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A little bit ago, we gave you the full list of 2014 All-Big Ten teams and the individual award winners (outside of the four major individual trophies, which will be announced on Tuesday night).

For the most part, these selections seemed very dead on. It helped that there was not a lot of controversy over the top picks for many awards. But that's not to suggest that there weren't some interesting/debatable choices.

Thoughts:

Individual awards

It's tough, quite frankly, to argue with many of these. J.T. Barrett is the obvious choice for quarterback of the year after his record-breaking season, and he will no doubt be the Big Ten freshman of the year on Tuesday night (He'd trade it all to be able to play Saturday, for sure). Similarly, Melvin Gordon deserved the running back of the year award and will be the league's offensive player of the year. There's also no doubt about Joey Bosa, Tony Lippett, Maxx Williams, Mike Hull or Brad Craddock for their honors.

I do wonder a bit about Iowa's Brandon Scherff as the offensive lineman of the year. He's a terrific player and a future first-round draft pick. But I didn't think he was dominant all year long and, at times, he got visibly beat (most notably in the Maryland game). Yet his reputation is very strong among coaches and he was an Outland Trophy finalist. I'm not so sure that others, like Michigan State's Jack Conklin and Ohio State's Taylor Decker, didn't have a better year.

Michigan State's Kurtis Drummond is a fine choice for defensive back of the year, though you could have just as easily gone with Maryland's Will Likely or Minnesota's Briean Boddy-Calhoun. As we've seen, though, coaches tend to favor seniors (remember Chris Borland over Ryan Shazier last year?). Ultimately, though, there's not a lot in these awards to get upset about.

All-Big Ten

These are, again, mostly strong and very defensible choices. But I do think there are a couple of highly debatable selections by the coaches (and no one here at ESPN.com voted on the media selections, so we're not patting ourselves on the back).

  • Kenny Bell on the coaches' first team at wide receiver? I love Bell's game and think he's an even better person. But he finished eighth in the Big Ten in receiving yards and wasn't even in the Top 10 in receiving yards. Yes, he's a great blocker, but that's not enough to warrant his selection over Rutgers' Leonte Carroo, who had 1,043 receiving yards. The fact that he's only honorable mention by the coaches is an absolute joke, and I wouldn't blame Rutgers fans for being furious.
  • And Illinois' Mike Dudek was arguably the best wide receiver in the league down the stretch, but he didn't make either first or second team by the coaches? Instead, the coaches went with Stefon Diggs and Devin Funchess on the second team, both of whom disappeared at key times. It's like the coaches based their picks more on pure talent and preseason reputation than actual production, which should be the gauge.
  • Similarly -- and I swear I'm not picking on Nebraska here -- Randy Gregory is as special a player as it gets from a talent standpoint. But he had all kinds of trouble staying healthy, and the Huskers' defense was simply not good at all in the team's biggest games. I don't see him as a first-team performer based on his 2014 production. I'd rather go with a second tackle like Louis Trinca-Pasat or Carl Davis from Iowa or Maryland's Andre Monroe as a third defensive end. Those guys were consistent performers all season long.
  • I would have voted Boddy-Calhoun over Doran Grant at cornerback, as the media did instead of the coaches, and I would have found a way to get Wisconsin safety Michael Caputo on the first team. He was such an anchor for the league's best defense.
  • Michigan State finished 10-2 yet didn't have a player win a Big Ten player of the week award until this week when R.J. Shelton was co-special teams player of the week (an obvious bone thrown toward the Spartans' way, since Nebraska's De'Mornay Pierson-El was so special on punt returns). Michigan State did get several first- and second-teamers here, but running back Jeremy Langford couldn't make the first or second team despite his streak of 15 straight 100-yard games in Big Ten play. That tells you how deep this running back group was in the conference, as Langford is the most notable snub from both coaches and media. But Ameer Abdullah and David Cobb couldn't even make the first team, though they would in pretty much any other league in America.
  • I'm struggling to come up with much else to criticize, which is unusual for these selections. So that tells me the league's coaches and media did a pretty good job. Stay tuned for tomorrow's major award announcement, where coach of the year is the only one really in doubt.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State lived through its own personal horror film, and it came out on the other side to discover it can survive the loss of a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback.

Now, it is going to have to endure a sequel.

The Buckeyes were written off after losing Braxton Miller during training camp in August and then dropping an early game with his replacement under center, J.T. Barrett, who turned out to be every bit as productive as his predecessor. He might have been even better in some ways as he rewrote the record books and kicked off his own stiff-arm campaign while leading the No. 6 Buckeyes back into position for a spot in the four-team field for the College Football Playoff.

But then, Ohio State's archnemesis struck again, and this season that description doesn't fit Michigan, with the 42-28 rivalry win almost an afterthought after the villainous Injury Bug returned and ended another quarterback's season with a fractured ankle that will require surgery for Barrett.

"He's for sure out," coach Urban Meyer said. "We've had two quarterbacks go down, and we're going to find out if we earn our coaching stripes and do a good job getting [Cardale] Jones ready to go. … We've got to go on, and we've got a lot of confidence in the guy that's going to be doing it.

"[But] obviously, we lost a Heisman candidate today."

Few teams could even think about issuing a statement like that twice in the same season, but that is the situation Meyer and the Buckeyes are now facing heading into next week's Big Ten title game and beyond.

In terms of the playoff, Ohio State was already going to be an interesting test case for the selection committee after Barrett's struggles in his second career start contributed to an ugly loss to Virginia Tech before he developed into the nation's most prolific touchdown artist -- adding three before leaving the Horseshoe on a cart Saturday afternoon. Now his absence could force a completely different examination of the résumé for the Buckeyes, who are down to their third-string quarterback heading into the postseason.

Of course, there is a more pressing matter than rankings or the playoff field this week, and Ohio State can still send a message that it belongs among the nation's best by claiming a conference championship with a win against another ranked opponent. But even before leaving the stadium to enjoy a third consecutive win against the Wolverines that capped yet another perfect regular season in Big Ten play under Meyer, the Buckeyes were already delivering the same message about their offense moving forward that they did three months ago.

"Obviously we're upset we lost J.T.," left tackle Taylor Decker said. "He's a warrior, he's done a lot for us this year and had a great year. But a lot of people were probably thinking the same thing as they're thinking now when Braxton went down.

"So one guy, even though he's had a great year and we love him, that's not going to change our team completely."

The Buckeyes actually did change when Miller was ruled out for the season after re-injuring his shoulder in August, emphasizing the passing game more thanks to Barrett's accuracy and decision-making and watching him break the Big Ten single-season touchdown record along the way.

It's certainly going to be a tall order for Jones to duplicate that type of relief effort, particularly since he's not nearly as sharp with the football as Barrett. But he's a load to tackle at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, brings mobility to the quarterback position and has also been in the program long enough for both Jones to know the offense and the coaching staff to understand how he fits in it.

And with the two Heisman contenders ahead of him now officially out for the rest of the season, it is up to Jones to supply the happy ending if there's going to be another for the Buckeyes.

"We had a guy, to put it in battlefield terms, we had a guy and his rifle go down. Somebody has to pick it up and keep fighting," offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "I wouldn't have asked for this, certainly, but this game is very crazy at times -- throws you a lot of curveballs -- and you've got to be able to adapt and adjust. I'm sure we'll be able to do that."

Ohio State has done it once. Now it will have to deliver an encore.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Maybe someday Ed Warinner will turn to a first-time starter on the offensive line who is so talented, prepared and unfazed by the moment that he never has to worry about going through a rough patch.

Of course, then there might be no reason for Ohio State to employ a coach for that position at all.

So instead, it will have to live with rocky debuts like the one Taylor Decker suffered through a year ago against future NFL star Khalil Mack when he was at Buffalo. He’ll have to watch three other new regulars get overwhelmed in a prime-time matchup against a unique, aggressive defensive line in a loss to Virginia Tech.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Decker
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsBehind Taylor Decker and an improving offensive line, Ohio State is leading the Big Ten in scoring.
When those games are over, though, Warinner gets to go to work and prove why he’s such a valued commodity on the No. 6 Ohio State coaching staff. And based on how far Decker came last season and the development the Buckeyes have shown again this season up front from September to November, maybe those early struggles are just simply a rite of passage young players have to endure before Warinner unlocks all their potential.

“The biggest thing is you can’t blame the players,” Warinner said. “The first thing you do is say, ‘We’re going to help you in these scenarios.’ Then secondly, any fundamental mistakes they make, you have to make sure they understand that poor fundamentals against a strong defense won’t play out very well.

“You can get their attention, because players want to be successful, they want to look good. Players are more receptive to listening and being coached and details after a loss. You tell them, ‘I’ll do a better job coaching, you do a better job playing and we’ll get through this and grow from it.’”

It’s hard to ignore how much Ohio State has grown on the offensive line since the debacle against Virginia Tech on Sept. 6, a disaster for the entire unit that can’t be blamed solely on three new first-team blockers making just the second starts of their careers against a talented, unique defense. The Hokies relentlessly dialed up pressure and seemingly met little resistance on the way to seven sacks while holding Ohio State to just 108 rushing yards.

Certainly it was asking a lot to expect the Buckeyes to instantly and seamlessly replace four seniors on the line from a year ago, including three who have started games in the NFL this season. Just in case there was any doubt about the difficulty of breaking into the rotation and succeeding right away, the only returning starter on the line could have shared his own experience about his trial-by-fire debut a year ago.

But like Decker, the Buckeyes learned from their youthful mistakes instead of continuing to make them. And once again they’ve got the highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten and have only allowed 12 sacks over the past eight games as part of a resurgence back into contention for the College Football Playoff.

“Especially on the offensive line, you’re going to have struggles before you’re a consistent player, even if you’re really talented,” Decker said. “There were guys that struggled at times in the year and kind of got down on themselves, and I know exactly what that feels like. You just have to be in their corner, but also you have to make sure they realize there is a standard around here that must be upheld.

“It’s not going to be a finished product from the start. Everything takes work, and for guys starting in their first year, they’re going to need more work to get to that finished product.”

There may still be more room to grow, and Warinner obviously isn’t backing off now just because he’s getting positive results lately and he suddenly finds himself leading a group stocked with both playing experience and confidence.

After all, until the Buckeyes can find that perfect first-time starter who only continues to play perfectly after that, he’s still got a job to do.

“I didn’t have doubts we’d improve because we have good guys who are talented and coachable,” Warinner said. “I didn’t know when it would happen, but it has started to happen here through the last three or four games. You could start to see it coming along, and we just have to keep improving. We still have areas we can improve at, but the biggest thing is consistency and confidence and the physicality.

“We want that, and it's important to us. And we’re getting that out of them.”

Perhaps it will never be something that can be tapped into right away on the offensive line. But with Warinner around, it clearly isn’t taking Ohio State long to get what it wants.

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