COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Taylor Decker heard the doubters after Ohio State's offensive line couldn't block Virginia Tech in a Week 2 loss.
"A lot of people were against us after that loss," the junior left tackle said. "A lot of people said we couldn't play at this level, that we weren't good enough."
The group entered the 2014 season as a major question mark after losing four starters, and the Virginia Tech game seemed to solidify those concerns. The Buckeyes gave up seven sacks and rushed for just 108 yards on 40 carries against the Hokies' aggressive scheme.
But Ohio State is playing for the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T on Monday night versus Oregon in large part because its offensive line has developed into one of the best in the nation. That was obvious in last week's 42-35 semifinal win over Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, even though skeptics said the Buckeyes couldn't run up the middle against the Crimson Tide's massive defensive front.
"Everybody kept saying that," center Jacoby Boren said. "But ultimately, we knew that's something we take pride in, and we had confidence in knowing we would be able to do it."
Ohio State ran for 281 yards versus Alabama, which led the FBS in rushing defense during the regular season. The Crimson Tide hadn't allowed a 100-yard rusher all season until Ezekiel Elliott set a Sugar Bowl record with 230 yards. Elliott rumbled for 220 yards in his previous game against Wisconsin, another team that had one of the country's best rush defenses before getting bulldozed by the Buckeyes.
"The offensive line is opening up big holes for me," Elliott said.
The nature of Urban Meyer's offense is a power run game based out of a spread set, and it all starts with a strong effort up front. It took a while for this year's unit to jell because of youth and inexperience, but it is now operating at peak efficiency.
"No question, this is as well as they have played," Meyer said Tuesday.
This group was a bit more of a project than Meyer's first two O-lines in Columbus. It includes a fifth-year senior in right tackle Darryl Baldwin, who began his career on the defensive line and had never started before this year. There's a redshirt freshman in Billy Price at left guard and a sophomore in right guard Pat Elflein, who proved himself in an emergency start in last year's Big Ten title game.
The line is perhaps personified by Boren, an undersized junior who Meyer thought might project as a fullback when he first saw him. Ohio State brought in Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay this summer as its potential starting center, but Boren just worked even harder to beat him out. That was nothing new for him. Boren is such a grinder that he helped plow snow all night for his family's business last winter, showing up for 6 a.m. workouts on little or no sleep.
"Yeah, maybe he's not as tall or as heavy as you want him to be," Decker said. "But you can't teach that scrappiness, that edge he has to him. He plays mad. I think that's probably just a product of people telling him he can't do things. Without him, our offensive line wouldn't play as well as where we're at."
Decker is the star of the group, a 6-foot-7 road grader who was the only returning starter from 2013. Yet even he had to make adjustments this year as he moved from right to left tackle. Decker is an outgoing animal sciences major who interned at the Columbus Zoo last year and aspires to wrangle big cats one day when his playing days are done. For now, he's taming opposing pass-rushers.
"I would take him over any tackle in college football," Boren said. "I think he's done a great job out there."
The season didn't start out great for the offensive line, but Decker said the players never listened to critics or lost confidence. That's because they believed in position coach Ed Warriner. And rightly so. Warriner is a big reason three starters from last year's line -- Jack Mewhort, Andrew Norwell and Corey Linsley -- started in the NFL as rookies. Meyer will likely promote Warriner to offensive coordinator to replace Tom Herman after the national title game.
Just as Ohio State keeps pumping out successful quarterbacks, there also is now a tradition for "The Slobs," as Norwell nicknamed the offensive line last year.
"We always talk about theory and testimony," Meyer said, "and when Ed Warriner teaches an offensive lineman, that's the way it's supposed to be, it's not theory anymore."
The last challenge for this O-line comes against Oregon, which presents different obstacles than Alabama did. The Ducks show a lot of odd-man fronts, and while their front doesn't have the bulk of the Crimson Tide, they have speed and length -- especially with defensive ends Arik Armstead (6-8) and DeForest Buckner (6-7).
"We can't get a lot of double-teams, and that's kind of our strength as an offensive line," Decker said. "If people line up and play four down, we're going to kill them.
"So that makes it hard, because there are a lot of one-on-one base blocks, and they have long athletes pretty much across the board. They extend off blocks well, they use their hands well and they shed blockers well. They're going to be flying all over the field. But without a doubt, I think we'll be able to move the ball and score on them."
No one should be skeptical of this offensive line's ability anymore.