After their consistent success in developing one of the country’s best rushing attacks, as well as its rock-solid protection of Ken Dorsey, the offensive line was perhaps the last position any of the Miami consensuses worried about entering the Fiesta Bowl.
Head coach Larry Coker, however, thought otherwise.
“They’re very good at what they do, and we’re going to have to be patient,” said Coker in the days leading up to the national championship game. “We’re going to not have to get frustrated if we don’t get the big plays.”
The concerns of Coker rang true during the national championship game as Miami’s offensive line was consistently dominated in the Hurricanes 31-24 double overtime loss. The unit, which allowed just 11 sacks in the regular season, surrendered four against the menacing Buckeyes’ defensive line, including one that resulted in a Dorsey fumble.
Dorsey’s two interceptions could also be partially blamed on the offensive line’s inability to consistently handle Ohio State’s blitzes, particularly on the right side, where Will Smith and Kenny Peterson had a field day.
The Buckeyes front four also outmaneuvered Miami’s offensive line in the running game, where the Hurricanes mustered just 65 yards, nearly a third of their average.
“We didn’t protect the quarterback, and we didn’t establish a running game,” offensive line coach Art Kehoe said. “In the end, it all showed. We all have to take blame for that.”
Entering the game, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel pointed to the Hurricanes running game as being the key weapon for their success, and the most important thing for OSU’s defense to shut down. During the first half, it was evident that the Buckeyes spent a considerable amount of time dissecting the Miami’s ground game and were familiar with the various schemes that Coker and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski had implemented throughout the season, as they held McGahee to under 30 yards rushing.
The sophomore tailback would have more success in the second half, as the offensive line improved on its run blocking, giving McGahee more room to maneuver towards the outside.
“[Ohio State] were moving and blitzing every single down like they were trying to stop the run, and they were stopping the pass at the same time,” right guard Chris Myers said. “We did better with the running game in the second half – the first half we just [stunk].”
Individually, the Hurricanes offensive lineman struggled in their matchups as well. In addition to Myers and Carey, seniors Sherko Haji-Rasouli and Brett Romberg had problems as well. Romberg allowed his first career sack to Ohio State’s Tim Anderson, and was in no mood to express much verbal communication after the game.
“Romberg was quiet, very quiet,” lineman Ed Wilkins said. “I’ve never seen him at a loss for words.”
The ‘Canes offensive line also struggled mightily during Miami’s final possession. The Hurricanes could not punch the ball into the end zone on four attempts from the one-yard line. On fourth down, blitzing linebacker Cie Grant broke through the line, getting to Dorsey and causing the UM quarterback to rush a throw from his back foot, which would fall incomplete.
“I don’t want to take anything away from Brett or Sherko, because they gave so much to this program, but they’d be the first ones, myself included, to put the heat on us,” Kehoe said. “We didn’t protect the quarterback and we didn’t establish a running game. We had a chance to put them away at the 1-yard line [twice in overtime] and didn’t get it done.”
The lackluster performance in the Fiesta Bowl does not take away from the offensive line’s growth throughout the season. The trio of Vernon Carey, Chris Myers and Carlos Joseph, none of who had a collegiate start entering the 2002 season, blossomed into more than capable starters. The continued growth of the three will be important with the departure of the ‘Canes two best linemen, Romberg and Haji-Rasouli. For now, junior Joel Rodriguez and senior Joe McGrath are the favorites to fill the open slots.
“If Joel gets a little tougher, and McGrath comes back and goes to work, we’re going to be good next year,” Kehoe said. “But it all starts with the maturity process. If you’re not playing, some guys have a tendency to kind of just sit back, not working as hard as they should be, and that’s what some guys have been doing.”
You can reach Jeremy Marks-Peltz at firstname.lastname@example.org