COLUMBUS — Taylor Decker knows a thing or two about changing people’s perceptions. He has done it two years in a row.
Ohio State’s junior left tackle is the leader of an offensive line that has made a transformation which would have seemed impossible four months ago.
With four new starters, Ohio State’s line was a major question coming into the season.
A dreadful performance in a 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech in Week 2 only increased the doubts about the offensive line after it gave up seven sacks and the Buckeyes’ running backs combined for only 53 yards rushing.
But now four months later, those same linemen are viewed as one of the strengths of the team, going into Monday night’s national championship game against Oregon.
Ohio State’s offense ranks fifth in the country in scoring (45.0) and ninth in total offense ( 509.7 ). Ezekiel Elliott has rushed for more than 200 yards in each of the last two games and OSU rolled up 281 yards against an Alabama defense that was ranked No. 1 against the run in a 42-35 win in the Sugar Bowl.
Decker knows all about rough starts. Last season, he was the only new starter on a veteran offensive line and was roughed up a little in the opener by Buffalo’s Khalil Mack, who went on to become the No. 5 overall pick in the NFL draft. From there he had a solid season and was moved from right tackle to the key spot of left tackle for 2014.
This year, Decker watched the guys around him come back strong after a shaky start, the same way he did in 2013.
“It is just awesome to see guys grow up because I know that I had to do that my first year and a half,” Decker said. “People always want us to be a finished product even before the first game. They want to hear that everything is perfect and we are going to smoke everybody.
“A lot of people were against us after that Virginia Tech loss and a lot of people said that we couldn’t play at this level and we were not good enough. But I don’t think that got into our heads and into our offensive line,” he said.
Much of the credit for the turnaround goes to assistant coach Ed Warinner, who has changed Ohio State into a place where the offensive line consistently beats expectations.
Center Jacoby Boren says the Virginia Tech disaster taught the offensive line and the entire team some valuable lessons.
“The Virginia Tech game was rough. It’s something we took very personally,” Boren said. “Knowing where we are now, playing for national championship, I wouldn’t change that game. Our team grew tremendously from that game, whether it be J.T. (Barrett), the line, every position definitely made some big mistakes there.
“We were definitely caught off guard. It’s made us stronger and it’s the reason we’re where we are today,” he said. “I remember that Sunday, we came in and that was what we focused on – what we messed up. It was something we kept building on and building on and it made one of our weaknesses into our strength.”
If that game made the offensive line angry, maybe that was a good thing, Decker said.
“I think that if you don’t have a chip or an edge to you that you are not going to be a good offensive lineman because it is a physical position. You have to play with a little anger out there because you are going against 300-pound men that don’t want to be moved and you have to move them,” he said.
If Ohio State’s offensive linemen can move Oregon’s 300-pound men as well as they have recently, the Buckeyes could be celebrating a national championship late Monday night.