OL Is "Concern No. 1" Going Into VT

After and up-and-down showing in Saturday's season opener vs. Navy, the young Ohio State OL has been branded concern No. 1 going into Saturday's game vs. Virginia Tech by head coach Urban Meyer. Can the Buckeyes channel a strong second half into progress against the Hokies?

You couldn’t exactly see the angel and the devil on Urban Meyer’s shoulders Monday, but they could have been there whispering in his ear from either side when he Ohio State head coach was asked about his offensive line.

“The second half helped,” the angelic side of Meyer said of the Navy game, referring to the way the Buckeyes closed what had been a close game with three straight touchdowns to pull away to the 34-17 win.

“Spring practice did not help,” came the reply from the other side.

“Training camp helped,” Meyer said, switching back to the other shoulder.

“And then the first half did not,” Meyer said in another about face.

So which half won the argument? That might not be settled until the Buckeyes take the field on Saturday against a Virginia Tech that will be, as the saying goes, blitzing anyone in scarlet and gray from the second they get off the bus. (The ushers might want to take notice).

As perhaps expected in the Navy game, there was some good, some bad out of a green Ohio State line that played six players with a combined 14 starts on the offensive line going into the game. Thirteen of those belonged to right tackle-turned-left tackle Taylor Decker, while the other old hand of the unit is third-year sophomore guard Patrick Elflein.

In fact, the entire right side of the OSU starting line – junior center Jacoby Boren, redshirt freshman guard Billy Price and senior right tackle Darryl Baldwin – were all making their first offensive line start on Saturday, which will happen when four two-year starters walk out of the program like they did after the 2013 season. The top backup, guard Joel Hale, is a senior, but he too was earning his first-ever collegiate action on the OL after starting his Buckeye career as a defensive lineman.

So there might have been some inevitable growing pains out of the Buckeyes, but a first half that included one sack allowed, one holding call on a passing blow, one missed assignment that led to a throw-away and another MA that contributed to an interception left the OSU coaching staff worried.

“It was very concerning early,” said offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who intimated he viewed his call sheet like a vegetarian would a steakhouse menu in the first half. “I was trying to reach into the call sheet trying to figure out any throws or runs we could try to do to mask some of the deficiencies we had.”

Of the issues, offensive line coach Ed Warinner said, “There were guys getting beat one-on-one. There was a couple of communication things. They were mixing up their looks and mixing up how they wanted to pressure us. That’s part of the first game experience.”

Steady improvement, though, isn’t necessarily guaranteed in-game, but that’s what the Buckeyes got. The pass protection improved to the point that freshman QB J.T. Barrett completed all four of his second-half passes – including a game-changing 80-yard bomb to Devin Smith – while the Buckeyes ground out the clock in the fourth quarter, averaging 7.6 yards per rush in the final stanza against Navy’s undersized line.

“We definitely played better,” Elflein said. “We started getting some more confidence. We started running the ball more and getting some yards and getting in the groove. When we did that, things started rolling, and we started protecting better. We gained more confidence.”

They’ll need more than confidence, though, against a Virginia Tech team not afraid to take chances. The Hokies made 39 sacks last year, good for a tie for eighth in the nation, and picked up four more in the season opener against William & Mary in a game in which VPI allowed just 193 yards offense.

Meyer knows that if the line isn’t up to par, especially in pass protection, bad times could be ahead.

“Concern No. 1 is offensive line,” the head coach said. “Trying to think of the rest of our opponents, this will be one of the top one or two defensive lines we'll face all year. Our offensive line did not play like an Ohio State offensive line. The standard was set many, many years ago. I think Coach Warinner, the last two years really added to the reputation of Ohio State offensive line. We did not play like that.

“The second half we played pretty good. But pretty good is not what we expect. You play pretty good this week you won't win that game. So we have to get much better fast in the offensive line.”

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