"It's hard to ignore how much Ohio State has grown on the offensive line since the debacle against Virginia Tech on September 6, a disaster for the entire unit."
-Austin Ward, ESPN.com
What started as one of Ohio State's biggest weaknesses this season has become one of its greatest strengths. The offensive line, tasked with replacing four starters from a dominant 2013 unit, crumbled against a Virginia Tech team that has failed to impress since. The development of the players involved is a big reason why the line has come so far this season, but the biggest reason might be coach Ed Warinner.
"You can get their attention, because players want to be successful, they want to look good," Warinner told Ward. Warinner has made his mark repairing a young and inexperienced line this season, which has helped lead the charge for the highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten. "Players are more receptive to listening and being coached and details after a loss," Warinner says.
The lessons seem to have stuck. After giving up seven sacks against the Hokies, the line has only allowed 12 all season. Led by the line's only returning starter, Taylor Decker, the offense is looking more potent and more cohesive with each passing week. J.T. Barrett has been phenomenal all year, but he can't throw if he's laying on the ground. Should the Buckeyes do what once appeared to be impossible and make this year's playoff, a much-improved offensive line will be a big reason why.
"When it comes to Elliott...Meyer admits the sophomore probably doesn't have enough touches. But when Elliott does, he makes the most of it."
-Ari Wasserman, Cleveland.com
The Big Ten has arguably the best group of running backs of any conference in 2014. Names like Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah, David Cobb, and Tevin Coleman have dominated the discourse this season, but there's one name missing from that list. Ezekiel Elliott is just 46 yards shy of becoming Urban Meyer's second 1,000-yard rusher ever, after Carlos Hyde's superlative performance in 2013.
Does Elliott think he belongs in the conversation with the prolific names on that list? "Yes."
It's hard not to make a case for him, especially given the context. Hyde put up his monster numbers behind the best offensive line in the country, with the benefit of a veteran quarterback in a dangerous read-option attack. Elliott's path has been... different. He's averaging 95.4 yards per game on the ground, good for 33rd in the country. He's incredibly valuable even when he doesn't have the ball in his hands: according to Wasserman, Meyer calls Elliott the best running back he's ever coached when it comes to all the little things like blocking and selling run fakes.
Look, it's easy to put Elliott's numbers next to those of the other backs in the conference and say that he's fallen short of what those other guys do. But in an offense more loaded with talent than Nebraska's, Minnesota's, Wisconsin's, or Indiana's, the man with the half-shirt isn't always the focal point. And therein lies the rub -- Zeke has arguably done more with less than any other name on that list.
"Hoosiers running back Tevin Coleman ranks second nationally with 1,678 rushing yards, and he has the speed and versatility to hurt Ohio State where it has struggled in recent weeks."
-David Regimbal, Bleacher Report
The Buckeyes are in for a big test on Saturday against one of the best backs in college football. It's an unfortunate collision of circumstance, as the Buckeyes have floundered against opposing rushers over the second half of the season. David Cobb of Minnesota was the most recent tailback to give Ohio State's rush defense fits. Cobb finished with 3 touchdowns and over 100 yards. It's especially disconcerting given that the Minnesota passing attack has been limp all year, so stopping Cobb was the focal point for the defense.
Michael Bennett lit into his teammates at halftime of the Minnesota game, and the Buckeyes buckled down in the second half. Still, it's been disconcerting to watch teams like the Gophers put together good numbers on the ground against a defense that, on paper, should be dominating the opposition. While the secondary seems to have solved a number of its early season woes, the Buckeyes have been less impressive attacking the run despite their talent up front.
Between Coleman on Saturday, and presumably Melvin Gordon in the Big Ten championship game, the Buckeyes will be facing some of the most dangerous running backs in the country as the season goes on. It's an area in which Ohio State will need to buckle down in a big way if they're to have any real shot at cracking the college football playoff.
"The redshirt freshman quarterback and blossoming national star is certainly attracting more attention, and he is steadily shooting up the polls as a candidate for the game's most prestigious honor."
-Austin Ward, ESPN.com
It's something we've been touting on Land-Grant Holy Land all season. And it's an idea that's finally gaining some national traction: J.T. Barrett is a legitimate contender for the Heisman Trophy. The young quarterback has taken the reins of one of the country's best offenses, accounting for 38 total touchdowns and looking poised beyond his years. The only people not considering Barrett as a threat to take home the award? Urban Meyer and Barrett himself, at least publicly.
"If I saw it [being a distraction], certainly I'd jump in the middle of that. But I haven't even given it two thoughts," Meyer said. As for Barrett? "I hope it doesn't change me. I hope I stay the same."
Give credit to Barrett and co.: it doesn't seem as though the attention is getting to them. Barrett isn't the only one dealing with awards attention, as destroyer of worlds Joey Bosa is a finalist for a prestigious one himself: the Lombardi Award, given to the best lineman or linebacker in the country. For now, the team and Meyer have done a masterful job of keeping level heads and realistic expectations, and that might be the best thing they have going for them.