The Oregon offensive line has overcome more injuries this season than most teams endure in the span of three to four seasons.
It has shuffled in young players and inexperienced players (and quite frequently) with grizzled veterans, but yet the result has typically been the same: producing one of the most versatile run games in the nation.
“We have a mantra around here of ‘next guy up,’ and that group, that offensive line group, was dedicated to playing the best that they can,” quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “I’m proud of those guys for dealing with that adversity all year.”
The only speed bump was that short stretch from late September to early October, when the Ducks gave up 12 sacks to Washington State and Arizona, didn’t score a single rushing touchdown and averaged 158 rushing yards per game (about 80 yards less than the Ducks’ season average).
It’s also the stretch in which Oregon was missing tackle Jake Fisher. The coaches and players have been careful not to place too much of an importance upon the return of a single player into a five-person position group, but the numbers don’t lie. In the nine games following Fisher’s return, the Ducks haven't averaged fewer than 4.4 yards per rush (they did in both games he missed), they've scored at least two rushing touchdowns in each game and averaged 260.4 rushing yards per game.
Even with that two-game dip, the Ducks currently rank 17th nationally in rushing yards per game (241.9). However, from an efficiency standpoint, Oregon has been even better. It registers a first down or touchdown on 30.2 percent of its rush attempts (sixth nationally) and only 17.5 percent of the Ducks’ rushes have been held to no gain or negative yardage (ninth nationally).
As the season has worn on, the run game and quarterback protection has looked stronger and stronger. In early November, Oregon seemed to be hitting its stride. So when Hroniss Grasu went down against Utah, the Ducks continued with their “next man up” mantra, but something just seemed to be different along the line even if it wasn’t showing up in the statistics.
Up until the Colorado game on Nov. 22, Grasu had been the starting center in every game that Mariota had started at quarterback. But after the Utah game, Oregon moved Hamani Stevens from guard to center, and Mariota worked with a new center with his team’s College Football Playoff hopes and his Heisman Trophy candidacy on the line.
Last week, amid a sea of rumors about his availability for the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual, Grasu finally returned, sending Stevens back to guard.
“Just being a part of the team again on the field out there was unbelievable,” Grasu said.
The Ducks averaged 6.7 yards per rush against Florida State -- their third-highest mark of the season (though it should be noted that their best and second-best yards-per-rush performances came against South Dakota and Wyoming).
The rest of the statistics didn’t jump quite like they did after Fisher’s return -- the Ducks registered their second consecutive 300-yard rushing game and they managed to put up five rushing touchdowns (the only other time Oregon did that this season was against Wyoming).
But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a change. Yes, maybe the statistics didn’t change, but the opponent and the stage certainly did. There seemed to be an overwhelming comfort and ease among the line and the offense as a whole as the Ducks crushed the Seminoles' run defense.
Coming into the Rose Bowl, FSU’s run defense had given up 160.1 yards per game and 3.9 yards per rush. The Ducks nearly doubled both of those statistics, rushing for 301 yards at 6.7 yards a rush.
That’s not all attributed to Grasu, but some (and possibly much) of it should be sent in the direction of the fifth-year senior.
“He puts the pieces to the puzzle for us,” Fisher said. “He calms us because he knows what he’s doing every single play. He starts us out and we’re able to finish out what we’re supposed to do.”
“He brings a lot of experience back to the line and that showed out there today,” Stevens added following the Rose Bowl win. “Our run game improved tremendously today and that’s just because more guys are more confident with the players they’re playing next to.”
Now, the Ducks will prepare for Ohio State -- their 15th game this season -- having used almost as many different starting combinations on the offensive line.
In the Buckeyes’ final four games of the season, they held opponents to 160.8 rushing yards per game at 4.4 yards per rush. But keep in mind that two of those games were against Wisconsin, the No. 3 rushing team in America, and Alabama -- the No. 1-ranked team in America.
The Oregon run game will certainly have its hands full with an Ohio State run defense that has made major strides and proved it can shut down star runners (it held Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon to 76 yards on 26 carries).
But with Grasu back on the offensive line, the Ducks also seem to be finding their own footing finally.