Star offensive linemen help lead Oregon, FSU to Rose Bowl
LOS ANGELES (AP) — When offensive linemen are getting a lot of attention, it is usually bad news.
That was the case at points this season for both Oregon and Florida State. The Rose Bowl participants each had to deal with issues up front that made them look vulnerable — and each had a lineman step up to save the day.
For Oregon it was Jake Fisher, who returned from an early season injury to provide stability at left tackle.
For Florida State, Cameron Erving made a late-season move from tackle to center that solidified the heart of the Seminoles’ offense.
Behind those reworked offensive lines, Marcus Mariota and the second-seeded Ducks will face Jameis Winston and the third-seeded Seminoles on Thursday in Pasadena in what is expected to be a high-scoring College Football Playoff semifinal.
Fisher missed both the Washington State and Arizona games with a leg injury and without him Mariota took a beating. The Ducks barely escaped Pullman, Washington, with a victory before getting beat at home by the Wildcats. Oregon allowed 12 sacks in those two games. In the eight games since — all double-digit victories for the Ducks — Oregon has allowed 14 sacks.
Fisher said Monday during Rose Bowl media day that the loss brought out the best in the Ducks.
"There was a lot of emotions after that loss. A lot of people realized things can go south really quickly if we didn’t put it back together," the senior third-team All-American said. "Everyone got more prepared mentally and physically."
Fisher’s return fortified Mariota’s blindside protection and allowed freshman Tyrell Crosby a chance to get comfortable in a lesser role.
"Just having Jake back, the leader that he is, the work ethic that he possesses, I think has been huge," offensive line coach Steve Greatwood said. "It’s just been kind of a calming influence for us. Now we’ve been able to somewhat settle guys into some positions that they can get comfortable with."
Greatwood wasn’t done juggling. Against Utah, second-team All-America center Hroniss Grasu was injured and the Ducks played the final two regular-season games and the Pac-12 title rematch against Arizona without him. He is expected to be good to go for Thursday.
"We’ve had some trials and tribulations," Greatwood said.
Without Grasu, who Fisher calls the "brains of our operation," Hamani Stevens moved over from guard to center. Former walk-on Matt Pierson slid inside from tackle. Crosby, who struggled early in the season at left tackle, was much better prepared to handle right tackle.
"I can’t say enough about the way he’s handled himself as a true freshman," Greatwood said. "I really think he’s going to be one of the dominant tackles in the conference if not in the country."
Greatwood said he cross-trains all his linemen at center when they come into the program, just in case.
Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett does the same and had been working Erving at center since last fall.
"All my years of coaching I’ve never had a guy bend over the football and be more natural than he is," Trickett said.
The coach almost moved Erving to center in September, but wasn’t sure the senior was ready.
As the season progressed Florida State’s veteran offensive line was underperforming. Heading into the Miami game, Trickett made the move with Erving and inserted freshman Roderick Johnson at left tackle.
"I was more concerned in the Miami game about Cam than I was with Rod," Trickett said. "Rod’s pretty mature for his age."
Erving was happy to do anything necessary to help the team.
"Center is definitely different because you have a little help on every play," he said. "Sometimes you don’t even have a man, specifically. You’re helping other people. With tackle you either have this guy or this guy. There’s always somebody out there."
And at tackle you never need to glance back before the play.
"You look down once and you come back up and see something totally different (from the defense)," he said.
In the four games since Erving switched, Florida State has allowed two sacks as compared to 19 in the nine previous games. The Seminoles ran for 181 yards in the season finale against Florida and 179 yards against Georgia Tech in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game, their best totals this season against FBS competition.
Thanks to Erving’s selfless move and solid play, Florida State comes into the Rose Bowl stronger than it has been all season up front.
"He could have been like, `Nah, I don’t want to do this. I’m a left tackle," All-America guard Tre’ Jackson said. "Whatever was best for the team, whatever it takes to win, that’s what he wanted to do."