LOS ANGELES — If there was a time this season to give up on Oregon playing for a national championship, odds are the Ducks’ offensive line was involved.
First, left tackle Tyler Johnstone, an NFL draft prospect, was lost for the season to a torn ACL before the season ever started. Oregon moved veteran Jake Fisher from right to left tackle, but optimism for that move was short-lived.
Then, Fisher went down with a leg injury after three games. So did reserve Andre Yruretagoyena. Oregon responded with its two worst games of the season, giving up seven sacks in a narrow win over Washington State and five sacks in a loss to Arizona.
Oddly enough, the loss seemed to enhance Oregon’s chances for the playoff once Fisher returned to the lineup. When Fisher was healthy, Oregon was unstoppable. It didn’t hurt that Arizona finished the regular season with 10 wins and a Pac-12 South title.
In Pasadena, though, there was reason for doubt again. Veteran center Hroniss Grasu had missed three final three games of the regular season. He, too, recovered in time.
Grasu and Fisher were both in fine form for the Rose Bowl, a game in which Oregon neutralized a Florida State defensive front stocked with pro potential.
“It's been patchwork all year,” Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost said from Rose Bowl preparation. “Guys that were called on that didn't expect to play have done a great job.”
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Florida State defensive tackle Eddie Goldman and defensive end Mario Edwards were reasons the Seminoles won the eye test in Pasadena. The final eye test, though, was in Oregon’s favor.
Goldman and Edwards were non-factors in the Playoff semifinal. Against the Ducks’ line, the duo didn’t have a single tackle, forced fumble or tipped pass.
In other words, they were absent from the final stat sheet. Marcus Mariota was never sacked, and the Ducks rushed for a total of 301 yards and five touchdowns. Oregon didn’t even move backward on a run play until backup quarterback Jeff Luckie was in the game in the fourth quarter.
Now, all the Oregon offensive line has to do for the Ducks to win the national championship is post similar results against one of the best defensive lines in the nation.
Florida State front has pro prospects, for certain, but Ohio State’s line is better. This is a group that had three sacks against Alabama’s Blake Sims and contributed to three interceptions in the semifinal. A game before that, it held Melvin Gordon to 76 yards and no runs of longer than 13 yards in the Big Ten title game.
Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota may be the top player on either team, but no collection of players may be more impressive than Ohio State’s defensive front.
One of the key matchups in the game will be between defensive end Joey Bosa, a unanimous All-America selection, against Fisher, who was slated to spend the season at right tackle until August.
This kind of a matchup isn’t likely to faze Fisher.
“Jake is a dog,” running back/wide receiver Byron Marshall said. “He doesn't take nothing from nobody, and I can appreciate that about him. If he gets pissed off, then it's good. Honestly, I like him mad. He gets to talking out there, and you can just see in his eyes that he's just ready.”
Oddly enough, Fisher, from Traverse City, Mich., committed to Michigan before the Wolverines fired coach Rich Rodriguez. Fisher now has a chance to beat Michigan State and Ohio State in the same season — but for Oregon.
While Fisher will continue to receive most of the accolades for Oregon’s offensive line thanks to the team’s performance when he’s in the lineup, he’s not the only difference-maker here.
A four-year starter and three-time All-Pac-12 selection, Grasu is one of the nation’s top centers. And although he missed the final three games of the regular season, he returned to pave through Goldman and the Semionles’ front line. Guards Hamani Stevens and Cameron Hunt are on a streak of 39 consecutive starts combined. When Grasu was out, Stevens was the one who moved from left guard to center.
And even tough Fisher’s injury exposed Oregon at the time, it provided freshman Tyrell Crosby with valuable experience. He’s started the last five games at right tackle. That includes no sacks allowed against Arizona or Florida State, a long way from his early starts against Washington State at Arizona.
“He was a freshman and trying to pick up the tempo of a college game,” Marshall said. “We were able to get that experience, help control the line that much more, and just helped us bust runs.”
What started as a patchwork is now a strength, perhaps enough of one to lead Oregon to its first national championship.
“Early on, when they were thrown in, they've had struggles, but those guys have really matured and developed as the year's gone along,” Frost said. “We've got more guys healthy right now than we've had almost the entire season.”