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vs. Ohio State
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: 1250 AM, 102.7 FM
Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde, left, celebrates his touchdown against Nebraska with teammate Reid Fragel in Columbus, Ohio.

O-line leads Buckeyes’ surge

‘Nonfunctional’ unit has shown big improvement

Associated Press photos
With the help of the offensive line, Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller has become a candidate to win the Heisman Trophy. The Buckeyes ran for 372 yards in a 63-38 win over Nebraska on Saturday.

– Andrew Norwell says when he and the rest of Ohio State’s offensive linemen walk into a room, the conversation stops and everyone takes note of the small group of large men.

People are noticing them even more these days, now that they’re central figures on a team that is unbeaten and ranked No. 8.

Coach Urban Meyer credits the line for the Buckeyes’ big wins the past two weeks against nationally ranked Michigan State and Nebraska. Meyer used to denigrate the position.

No more.

Last spring, he said the front wall was “nonfunctional.” Slowly but surely, he has become the unit’s biggest fan.

“Our offensive line is the whole reason why we’re where we are today,” Meyer said this week. “Tell it the way it is. Our offensive line is coming on. We called that group nonfunctional, because they were.”

After the Buckeyes’ 17-16 win at Michigan State two weeks ago, every member up front was designated by the coaching staff as a player of the game.

In the wake of Saturday’s 63-38 beatdown of No. 21 Nebraska, Meyer again heaped praise on the big guys after they forged the openings that led to 372 rushing yards. For a coach famous for his spread attack, for fleet receivers and sprinters who line up in the backfield, he also said something curious.

“We’re kind of a pound-you offense right now,” he said after midnight on a crisp Saturday at Ohio Stadium. “I don’t mind that. I’ve not had a lot of those. But that’s a pound-you offense.”

So, it’s almost as if the offensive line – tackles Jack Mewhort and Reid Fragel, guards Marcus Hall and Norwell and center Corey Linsley – has changed Meyer’s mind as much as he’s changed his mind about it.

There are a lot of theories why the line has gotten so much better. Some say it’s because it goes up against John Simon and Johnathan Hankins, the Buckeyes’ two man-eating D-linemen, every day in practice.

Others say it’s because the linemen are so close they are almost indistinguishable from each other.

“All of us are friends, all of us came in in the same recruiting class except for Norwell, and he’s one crazy dude and fits right in with us,” Linsley said. “There’s no separation within the line. There’s nobody looking at each other: ‘Oh, man, why isn’t he playing well?’ There’s none of that on the sideline or in the locker room or anywhere. It’s all positive reinforcement, we all know each other. We all feel like we’re brothers.”

Fragel, converted from tight end to starting right tackle this spring, is the tallest at 6-foot-8, although the group averages 6-6. Linsley is the lightest at 295 pounds, even though there’s only a 20-pound variance between him and the heaviest, Hall.

They’re used to standing out.

“When we walk into a room together, go out to eat, all eyes are on us because we’re not average people,” Norwell said.

He said it’s not togetherness but plain old effort that made them better.

“It was just hard work, coming in every day and getting coached hard,” Norwell said. “You take baby steps and just move forward.”

Even opposing coaches have noticed the transformation. The Buckeyes play at Indiana (2-3, 0-2) on Saturday.

“Everybody talks about the spread. You can talk tempo, you can talk shotgun, but the game is still a physical game,” Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson said. “(It requires) a physical presence and it starts in a couple of areas. (Up front) they’re making some great strides. I’ve been very, very impressed with their line.”

Now if there was just more of them. Meyer frets that even the slightest injury to anybody arrayed along the front wall could be a disaster for the paper-thin Buckeyes.

“Our backups are nonfunctional,” Meyer said. “God bless us, if a shoe string breaks or something, we’re going to call timeout and get a new shoe string because we just don’t have the depth there right now (to sub somebody else in).”

The starters, however, continue to play every down and make every play. They’ve helped turn quarterback Braxton Miller into a Heisman Trophy contender and the running attack into a facsimile of what it used to be back in the glory days of Archie Griffin and Eddie George.

“We’re not a finished product there. We still have a lot of things to continue to grow and clean up and get better at,” line coach Ed Warinner said. “But they’re really playing hard and they’re starting to understand what we really want in the spread offense.”