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Buckeye Heroes: Ohio State tackle Orlando Pace set the standard for offensive linemen

It’s been 27 years since the pancake man played in Columbus, but the Buckeyes continue searching for “the next Orlando Pace.” Hint: There isn’t one.

Ohio State Buckeyes v Pittsburgh Panthers Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about Ohio State heroes. Whether they are the biggest names in Buckeye athletic history or underappreciated icons; perhaps even players who made major impacts off the field. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ”Buckeye Heroes” articles here.

Ohio State fans of a certain age can hardly eat a hearty breakfast without thinking of former OSU offensive tackle Orlando Pace. While he didn’t necessarily invent the term “pancake” for knocking an opposition defender to the ground on his back with a powerful block, he sure did popularize it from 1994-1996, when he anchored the left side of the Buckeye offensive line.

The Sandusky, Ohio native arrived in Columbus with big expectations riding on his gargantuan, 6-foot-7 and 300-plus-pound frame. Pace had been a two-sport star and two-way football player during his high school career at Sandusky, and was named a Parade magazine high school All-American on offense and a USA Today All-American on the defensive side of the ball.

It took almost no time for Pace to make an impact. He became Ohio State’s second true freshman starter on opening day. He and the only 1994 returning starter on the offensive line, Korey Stringer, formed arguably the best pair of tackles to ever play together for the Buckeyes. Pace and his teammates took on Fresno State in the 1994 Disneyland Pigskin Classic in Anaheim, California, and brought home a comfortable 34-10 win. The Buckeyes rushed for 183 yards and three touchdowns, with Eddie George picking up 90 yards and two scores on the ground behind the rebuilt OSU line.

Ohio State went 9-4 in Pace’s first year of college football, losing twice on the road against ranked teams — including at No. 1 Penn State — and home in the annual Illibuck rivalry game before falling by a touchdown to No. 6 Alabama in the Citrus Bowl. George rushed for 1,442 yards, finishing 10th in the country behind Pace and his linemates. Pace was so good that he was named the 1994 Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

During Pace’s junior season, he showed off some of his two-way play, as John Cooper sometimes sent him on to play in the middle of the defensive line in goal line situations. As the new leader of the offensive line after Stringer’s departure for the NFL, Pace’s unit paved the way for George to rush for just 73 yards shy of a 2,000-yard season in 1995. George finished second in the country — to Iowa State’s Troy Davis — with 1,927 yards rushing and an NCAA best 24 rushing touchdowns.

George beat out Nebraska’s Tommie Frazier and Florida’s Danny Wuerffel as the 1995 Heisman Trophy winner, and the Buckeyes finished 11-2, going undefeated and staying in the national championship picture until a 31-23 road loss at No. 18 Michigan. The Buckeyes then fell again in the Citrus Bowl, 20-14 to No. 5 Tennessee.

Pace helped lead Ohio State to an 11-1 record in his final season in Columbus. The 1996 team looked like a potential national champion side until an inexplicable 13-9 home loss in The Game. But the Buckeyes beat No. 2 Arizona State in a thrilling Rose Bowl to close the season and the awards piled up like the defenders Pace had been bulldozing for three seasons wearing the Scarlet & Gray.

He was named the Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year for the second straight season, and was honored as the UPI Lineman of the Year, Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, and Big Ten Most Valuable Player for the 1996 season.

The Pancake Man was a unanimous All-American his sophomore and junior seasons, winning the Lombardi Trophy both of those seasons — given annually to the best lineman or linebacker — and won the Outland Trophy — best interior lineman — in his final college season in 1996. Pace became the only two-time Lombardi winner in 1996, became one of just 12 players to capture the Outland and Lombardi trophies, and joined Nebraska legend Dave Rimington as the only players in history to win a combined three Outland and Lombardi awards.

As if those awards weren’t impressive enough, Pace was a Heisman Trophy finalist. Yes, as an offensive tackle. The Ohio State Athletic Department sent out pancake magnets to voters, and Pace even had a Heisman campaign ad.

The ad didn’t seem to help Pace’s cause, as the big man finished a distant fourth in the final Heisman Trophy voting for the 1996 season. He finished behind winner Wuerffel, Davis, and Arizona State quarterback Jake Plummer. It is rarer than a unicorn sighting for an offensive lineman to even be considered for the Heisman, but that’s how good Pace was. Big No. 75 didn’t allow a single sack in his final two collegiate seasons.

He is considered by some — including me — to be the greatest football player in Ohio State history. That’s obviously subjective, but given that those who play his position has few stats associated with it and doesn’t show up in the box score very often, an offensive lineman has to be special to even be considered in those conversations.

Pace left the Buckeyes after 1996 and was drafted by the Rams at No. 1 overall after St. Louis traded up to get the pick. He was the first offensive lineman taken in that spot since 1968, when Ron Yary was selected first overall by the Minnesota Vikings. Coincidentally, Yary finished his NFL career with the Rams in 1982, before they moved from Los Angeles to St. Louis.

His career in the NFL lasted from 1997 to 2009. Like Yary, he played his entire career with the team that drafted him until his final professional season, when Pace joined the Chicago Bears.

During his 13-year NFL career, Pace was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, a three-time First-Team All Pro, a two time Second-Team All-Pro, and he helped the Rams win the Super Bowl in January of 2000, ironically beating his former teammate, George, who scored two touchdowns for the Tennessee Titans in that game. For all of his accomplishments, Pace was honored as a member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 2000s.

Pace was deservedly inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2013. For his three seasons in Columbus, he was named as a starter on the Sports Illustrated All-Century Team at the end of 1999.

There may never be another like Orlando Pace. His power, quick feet, good hands, and speed for someone so big were uncanny. For those who never saw Pace play, this is a pretty good compilation that shows what he could do. Just keep your eyes on No. 75 at left tackle.