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Ask LGHL: Will the offensive line be nasty enough to convert on 3rd and short?

You ask, we answer. Sometimes we ask, others answer. And then other times, we ask, we answer.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Every day for the entirety of the Ohio State football season, we will be asking and answering questions about the team, college football, and anything else on our collective minds of varying degrees of importance. If you have a question that you would like to ask, you can tweet us @LandGrant33 or if you need more than 280 characters, send an email HERE.

Question: Can the Ohio State offensive line be tough enough to let running backs pick up yards in high-pressure situations?

There has been a lot of discussion during this offseason about whether or not the Ohio State football team was soft last season; whether or not they were a finesse team.

Now, I am certainly never going to tell a group of 100+ grown men that could all easily break me in half that they were soft, but that has certainly been the consensus around the college football world, at least in relation to the other teams at the top of the sport.

So, for the first Ask LGHL column of a 2022 game week, we are looking at whether or not the Ohio State offensive line can reverse that trend thanks to overlapping questions from TJ, John, and J.

We all know that last season saw the Buckeyes lead the country in yards and points, but despite those lofty rankings, they only managed to come in at 47th in rushing yards per game — they were third in passing ypg.

With a passing attack as prolific as the one led by C.J. Stroud, the running game deficiencies were most evident in short-yardage, high-pressure situations; third and fourth downs against the better teams on OSU’s schedule. While Ohio State was second in the country on third-down conversions in 2021 (52.6%), they were 46th on fourth down (57.89%). Of course, the Buckeyes threw the ball in these situations quite a bit, so that throws off the data fairly significantly.

So while improving the toughness of the offensive line will certainly give Ryan Day more flexibility in short-yardage situations — especially against higher-quality opponents — there are better ways to evaluate last year’s deficiencies.

As a whole, Ohio State’s running backs ran the ball 196 times between the tackles for an average of 5.5408 yards per carry. That is more or less that OSU averaged as a whole for the season. In 2021, the Buckeyes put up 5.5414 yards per carry, which was third in the country. Of course, those overall numbers include quarterback yardage, including the 133 yards given up on sacks.

But, if QB totals didn’t really bring down the overall rushing average, what was the counterbalance to those negative plays? The answer would be outside of the tackles. Last year, Ohio State ran for 1,344 yards on 114 attempts inside the tackles according to Pro Football Focus. These rushes, including jet sweeps, end-arounds, and reverses, resulted in an 11.79 ypc average.

Obviously, anytime you can get skill position players as dynamic as the Buckeyes have out in space, you are going to see incredible results. So the question is, will Ohio State be able to improve the interior blocking enough to create a little less separation between the between-the-tackle and outside-the-tackles running? We will see.

Going into the season opener against Notre Dame, the offensive line is one of the most solidified units on the team, with virtually no changes since the end of the Rose Bowl in January, and — as far as we know — no one dealing with substantial injuries.

We should all be shocked if anyone other than Dawand Jones (RT), Matt Jones (RG), Luke Wypler (C), Donovan Jackson (LG), and Paris Johnson Jr. (LT) anchor the offense on OSU’s first series on Saturday. This is a fairly experienced line, but thanks to a new offensive line coach (and running game coordinator) in Justin Frye, guys are finally back playing their natural positions.

Wypler and Dawand Jones started last year and will return to their respective center and right tackle positions. Johnson will move back to left tackle after playing right guard in 2021, and Jackson and Matt Jones have made the expected steps forward to take over at the guard positions.

In my mind, having an experienced and well-established offensive line is always important, but especially so when adjusting to a new position coach. Early during fall camp, Frye said that practices have been productive for all of the guys in his room.

“Right now, they’re just working. They’re buying in,” Frye said. “There’s not a guy out there right now that’s just showing up. Those guys are using their opportunities, whether they win the rep or lose the rep, they’re using them right now.”

That level of focus and intensity will be important for the Buckeyes this season if they are going to make improvements against the better defensive lines on their schedule, including Notre Dame this weekend.

As I showed in the third down and yards-per-carry stats above, those wide-net statistics won’t tell the story of the offensive line’s success, they will need to prove it in a small handful of situations in an even smaller handful of marquee games. For me, the proof will not be in ypc or conversion percentages, but in how confident I feel in the Buckeyes’ ability to have success in those situations, whether they run the ball or pass the ball.

If I can feel confident in their ability to convert on 3rd and 3 either through the air or on the ground, then I will know that Frye has gotten his guys to where they need to be.

We will obviously learn a lot on Saturday, and it is dangerous to take too much from the preseason platitudes of coaches and players, but it sounds like the entire team has a bit of a chip on its shoulder about the whole “finesse” label that has been slapped on them in the past couple of years.

The Ohio State offensive line is made up of bona fide top-tier talent; Matt Jones was No. 68 nationally in 2018, Johnson was No. 9 in 2020, Wypler was No. 108 in 2020, Jackson was No. 19 in 2021, and Dawand Jones transcends recruiting rankings. So, if a new coach can get them in the right positions, they can play with an anger and intensity that they haven’t yet had the opportunity to show, and they can continue to improve throughout the season, this very well might be the best offensive line in the country.