The season-long progression of Ohio State’s offensive line all culminates on Saturday.
That’s true of the team as a whole, but especially for the front five that has been the top question mark for the Buckeyes all year.
“You’re seeing improvement every week,” Ryan Day said Tuesday. “You’re seeing a group that works together. You're seeing progression individually and as a unit. They're going to do a great job today of getting out there on a Tuesday practice and working at their craft and preparing to go play at a high level, and then go compete for four quarters.
“I think their confidence is as high as it's been all season.”
With a Michigan team on tap that features the best defensive front Ohio State has seen this campaign, the left-to-right starting five of Josh Simmons, Donovan Jackson, Carson Hinzman, Matt Jones and Josh Fryar all need to be at peak performance in Ann Arbor.
“We see it all the time in practice,” linebacker Cody Simon said. “I think those are our best reps (in practice), where we can go against our offense and all the big movements and confusion that they cause for all the defenses across the Big Ten. But I have supreme confidence in them and they work so hard with Coach (Justin) Frye and everything.”
There have certainly been lumps taken by the Buckeyes’ offensive line this campaign.
Pass protection proved an issue early in the season, with free rushers coming open in the first few weeks as the unit jelled. Ohio State found intermittent success on the ground leading into the Notre Dame game on Sept. 23, averaging a season-high 6.2 yards per carry against Western Kentucky on Sept. 16. But an injury to star running back TreVeyon Henderson coming out of that contest paved the way for the worst rushing stretch the Buckeyes have found in 2023.
Ohio State averaged 1.9, 3.9 and 1.9 yards per carry, respectively, in games against Maryland, Purdue and Penn State. Dallan Hayden was at least able to show some flashes against the Boilermakers with 11 carries for 76 yards and one touchdown.
As Henderson has returned and provided some explosion on the ground, racking up 128 rushing yards or more in three of his four contests since returning to the field against Wisconsin, the Buckeyes’ rushing attack as a whole has opened up.
They averaged 5.5 and 6.1 yards per carry against decent run defenses in Michigan State and Minnesota, with a season-high 215 team rushing yards against the Golden Gophers.
“Early on in the season, I don't think everybody was always on the same page, and I think that’s to be expected,” Kyle McCord said. “But especially this last stretch, I think they've done a good job of communicating well, playing together, preparing during the week. And I think, as a result, their play has risen.”
The group's development was always going to take some time after Ohio State replaced three NFL draft picks along its offensive line from a year ago. That included a top-10 overall selection at left tackle in Paris Johnson Jr.
Simmons filled the position after transferring in from San Diego State, Fryar stepped into Dawand Jones’ massive shoes at right tackle and redshirt freshman Carson Hinzman took over for Luke Wypler at center as the youngest player among Ohio State’s starting group.
Hinzman’s had his struggles this season as he’s grown. The Buckeyes also toyed with a lineup that moved Matt Jones over to center and brought in veteran Enokk Vimahi at right guard against Michigan State.
“I think Carson’s done a great job with it, being one of the younger guys at center, doing a really good job with that. And I think the guys around him who have more experience like Donnie and Matt kind of lifted him up,” McCord said. “Matt Jones, especially, has done that. And when a guy has that much experience and has been playing for that long, to have a guy like that play next to you, I think, has helped Carson a lot.”
“You’re seeing improvement every week. You’re seeing a group that works together. You're seeing progression individually and as a unit.”– Ryan Day on the offensive line's Development
Michigan will present a whole new caliber of challenge for the group.
Hinzman, Jones and Jackson will come face-to-face with perhaps the best group of defensive tackles they’ve seen all season.
Despite playing just nine games this year, 318-pound monster Mason Graham has racked up 27 tackles with 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery from the position for the Wolverines. Senior Kris Jenkins, who weighs in at 305 pounds, has collected 24 takedowns of his own with 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception.
Rayshaun Benny and Kenneth Grant, the latter being the largest of Michigan’s core defensive linemen at 339 pounds, haven’t been much of a step back off the bench from that starting tandem. Grant has 22 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks while Benny’s posted 23 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and a sack of his own.
The interior of the Wolverines’ defensive line is big, productive and deep. They – alongside linebacker Junior Colson, who holds a team-high 60 tackles on the season – will be the biggest obstacles for Ohio State when it comes to running the football.
Not that those defensive tackles can’t pressure McCord as well, as evidenced by their seven combined sacks.
“Going to keep getting tested, but I feel like we’ve made some progress in different areas,” Day said of Ohio State’s rushing attack. “I think certainly Trey coming back has made a big impact on that. But everybody is involved with it, and it’s balance. But I think identifying each week what’s worked for us and what hasn’t and fixing those things over time, getting better – I think the infusion of Trey has certainly helped.”
None of that is to discount what the Wolverines bring off the edge. Both the Buckeyes’ offensive tackles, particularly Fryar, have had some problems at times with pass blocking against really good rush ends. Jaylen Harrell and Josaiah Stewart provide plenty of heat from the defensive end position, collecting 5.5 and 4.5 sacks, respectively.
Overall, Michigan is tied for 40th nationally with 27 sacks. That’s not as dominant as its performance in some other metrics as the nation’s No. 1 scoring and total defense, but make no mistake, the Wolverines’ defensive line doles out plenty of disruption.
“Super talented across the board. Coached really well,” McCord said of Michigan’s defense. “I think they play really hard too. When you turn on the film that jumps off, how hard they play, the effort. There's a reason why they're playing the way they are right now. ... We know it’s going to be a fistfight on Saturday.”
“Super talented across the board. Coached really well. I think they play really hard too. When you turn on the film that jumps off, how hard they play, the effort.”– Kyle McCord on Michigan's defense
McCord’s belief in that group up front has grown over the course of the season, he said. He’s not just seen their chemistry improve as a unit, but his own chemistry with that unit get better as well.
“The more reps you can get with guys, you kind of know what to expect,” McCord said. “Whether that's making identification calls or making protection calls, whatever it is just all being on the same page and having trust in them.”
A whiff in pass protection that leads to a strip sack or, conversely, a down block that springs Henderson for a long touchdown could be one of the many individual efforts that swing the game emphatically one way or the other on Saturday. Ohio State’s offensive line will need its maturation to be realized to give the Buckeyes their best shot.
“In those matchup games, it could come down to one play, and we have to play those games that way,” Day said. “We've been in a couple of those this season and talk about those games. Not that any game is any different but it could come down to one play. You’ve got to be on your game, and you’ve got to win situations.”