Interior of Ohio State's offensive line faces huge test against Georgia's front four
ATLANTA – It's not the most glamorous trio on Ohio State's team. Then again, the center and guards rarely are for a football team.
But if the Buckeyes are to pull off an upset of Georgia in Saturday's College Football Playoff semifinal, there might not be three more important players than Luke Wypler, Donovan Jackson and Matt Jones.
The interior of Georgia's defensive line is the strength of a unit that showed surprisingly little dropoff after losing five first-round draft picks from last year's national championship team.
The Bulldogs have been close to impenetrable in the run game. They yield the fewest rushing yards per game (77) nationally and give up only 2.94 yards per carry. Ohio State has a prolific passing game, but the Buckeyes are unlikely to prevail relying only on C.J. Stroud's arm. With Georgia's team speed, Ohio State likely will have difficulty running wide.
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“I think running between the tackles will set the tone for this game,” Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said. “It will set everything up for the offense.”
But Wilson knows what a challenge that will be against the Bulldogs
“They have a lot of tremendous players,” he said. “Always have. I think it starts with their coaches, the way they recruit, and the emphasis of defense and the passion.
“A lot of times when you put on tape, you see great players. A lot of times when you put on tape, you see scheme and structure. But sometimes when you put on the great teams, you feel the tape and you feel those guys on tape and you feel them on tape.”
Defensive tackle Jalen Carter is the headliner. Pro Football Focus graded him the highest of any power-five conference defensive player.
“He's somebody you've got to account for every snap,” Georgia co-defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said. “He can change the game, certainly inside. He's a very disruptive guy in the run game and in the pass game.”
The Buckeyes know the challenge they face in trying to control Carter.
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“He has a great understanding of football,” Wypler said. “You can tell he has great football IQ. He also is able to freelance a little bit in their defense and make plays. He's a great player. He has great ability, great strength, great power, speed, you name it. He knows how to work his hands."
Georgia's talent on the line extends far beyond Carter, starting with nose tackle Nazir Stackhouse. Like Ohio State's defensive line under Larry Johnson, the Bulldogs' philosophy is based on using waves of linemen to stay fresh.
“I saw him a lot in recruiting,” Donovan Jackson said of Stackhouse. “I know how good he is. But they have a very deep D-line room. Their rotation, their talent level, it goes deep.”
It's not as if the middle of Ohio State's offensive line consists of mediocre players. Jackson and Jones were second-team All-Big Ten in coaches' voting. Jones has battled a foot injury this season and missed the Michigan game, but Wilson said he has been practicing “full tilt” and expects him to play against Georgia.
Wypler was a third-teamer on the media ballot and is considered a potential second-round draft pick if he chooses to enter the NFL draft. Saturday's game could help determine whether that happens.
“It's going to be a great test for our offensive line,” Wypler said, “and I think we're all really excited to have that opportunity.”
Despite a revolving door at running back because of injuries, Ohio State is 11th nationally in yards per rush (5.5). Short-yardage situations have been a problem at times, but the Buckeyes' interior linemen are confident in themselves, even against an opponent like Georgia.
“As an offensive line, we approach it as, if we do what we're supposed to do and use our technique, then nobody can really beat us,” Wypler said. “I think we've shown that this year when we do things the right way, the way they should be done, and we're all on the same page, it's hard to stop our offense.”
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Ohio State vs. Georgia
When: 8 p.m. SaturdayTV: ESPNRadio: 97.1 FM