Quarterback Justin Fields is the primary reason Ohio State has an opportunity to play for a national championship. Star receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson form one of the nation's best duos on the outside. Running back Trey Sermon has put up gaudy numbers while helping the Buckeyes win the Big Ten and reach the national title game.
But the biggest improvement for this offense is not a glamorous one. It doesn't catch the attention of casual viewers on a play-by-play basis, even though the players are always on screen.
Ohio State's offensive line has started to dominate.
Early in the season, that was decidedly not the case. Although the Buckeyes had a ton of experience and high-level talent up front, the O-line played just OK.
Nebraska and Rutgers generated pressure on Fields consistently, and Penn State often disrupted running plays. Then a hyper-aggressive Indiana unit disorganized OSU's blockers. The Hoosiers totaled five sacks and three interceptions, and they put a lot more stress on Fields than the box score showed.
Through four games in a unique year, it certainly wasn't time to panic. For a program with championship expectations, however, the shortcomings left an uncomfortable feeling.
To really compete with Alabama or Clemson or another top team, that needed to change.
Because of COVID-19 health and safety protocols, even the chance for improvement required a delay.
Ohio State could not travel to Illinois, and three O-line starters missed the victory over Michigan State. Michigan's coronavirus issues struck the rivalry game, leaving a full month between the Buckeyes' semi-concerning Indiana win and the next game in which their first-choice offensive line took the field together: the Big Ten Championship Game.
With a conference title and College Football Playoff berth on the line, Ohio State had a razor-thin margin for error.
Fields didn't have a great performance. Most of that can be attributed to Northwestern's secondary, while Olave's absence didn't help. In the first half, Day's play-calling leaned on Fields to push the ball downfield to little success. He entered the locker room 9-of-20 with 101 yards and an interception.
But as the passing game's aggression went unrewarded, the offensive line showed its potential on the ground. Excluding three sacks, Ohio State had 123 rushing yards on 14 attempts. Sermon, then, controlled the second half. He ripped off gains of 65, 33, 28, 25 and 23 yards, also scoring twice en route to setting a program record with 331 yards.
In the wise (NSFW) words of Marshawn Lynch—condensed for brevity—Sermon and the offensive line ran through Northwestern over and over and over and over and over and over again.
That excellence up front changed the game, and it set the stage for redemption in two ways against Clemson. The obvious one was Ohio State lost to Clemson in last year's CFP. Plus, the Buckeyes struggled with blitz-happy Indiana, and Clemson coordinator Brent Venables is revered for his havoc defenses.
The offensive line—even absent left guard Harry Miller because of a positive coronavirus test—made sure it didn't matter.
Wyatt Davis said the O-line quickly knew it would play well.
"I would say right after that first series we knew," the All-American right guard told reporters. "That's typically when we know, but especially with this game, right after the first series, we knew that we could control the line of scrimmage. I feel like we did a great job of doing that."
Although Fields took a crushing hit from linebacker James Skalski, it happened when he scrambled. The line continually kept Fields clean—especially in the second half with his limited mobility—and created lanes for Sermon. Ohio State racked up 639 yards at a sizzling 8.9 per snap in the 49-28 victory.
Yes, smart game-planning also helped.
Clemson is known for stealing signals, which is both legal and attempted by every team. So, Ohio State huddled more. Or substituted late. Or sprinted to the line of scrimmage. That consistently caught Clemson's defense adjusting late or waiting for a call, providing a valuable edge to the offensive line too.
Sermon's early touchdown is a perfect example of how Ohio State could catch Clemson scrambling.
That's a complementary piece, though. The recent success is a product of the offensive line's flat-out being better.
"It wasn't always so much of a schematic deal," head coach Ryan Day told reporters. "It was more about getting a pads down, hands inside, running feet, all the things that come with that."
Whether the improvement continues against Alabama is the important question. The Crimson Tide have allowed just 3.2 yards per carry—the 11th-best mark nationally—so the Buckeyes are preparing for another great challenge.
No matter what happens, Ohio State wouldn't be in this position without the improved line. Perhaps it's only fitting the unit is likely to determine the outcome of the national title game.