In the days leading up to the 2013 Alamo Bowl, the Emerald will take a unit-by-unit look at Oregon and Texas, determining which team has the edge going into the showdown on Dec. 30 in San Antonio. Today, we’ll look at each team’s offensive lines, with thoughts on Texas from Wescott Eberts of Burnt Orange Nation.
The leader of this group for the Ducks is Hroniss Grasu, a Rimington Trophy finalist for best center in the nation this season. The three-year starter, who’s returning next season, helped lead the Ducks to a Pac-12-best 278.3 rushing yards per game.
Grasu wasn’t even named the best lineman by his teammates. That honor went to guard Mana Greig who, along with Grasu and the other starting guard Everett Benyard, paved the way for Oregon’s speedy running backs up the middle. Tackles Tyler Johnstone and Jake Fisher round out the group, which remained relatively healthy all season.
The “big uglies” (Grasu’s nickname for the linemen) went through plenty of struggles, though, especially toward the end of the season. In Oregon’s 26-20 loss to Stanford on Nov. 7, the Ducks rushed for 62 yards on 2.6 yards per carry, and quarterback Marcus Mariota was sacked three times.
Stanford does boast one of the best run defenses in the nation and Mariota was extremely limited that game, so not all the blame falls on the linemen. Plus, the rushing attack gradually improved in the next three games against Utah (145 total rushing yards, 4.1 yards per carry), Arizona (198, 5.1) and Oregon State (283, 6.3).
Overall, the line was solid this season. But the Ducks’ still struggled running the ball compared to recent seasons, especially on carries up the middle. Against Texas, they’ll face a solid defensive line that includes co-Big-12 defensive player of the year Jackson Jeffcoat and all-Big 12 second-teamer Cedric Reed (both defensive ends). The Longhorns might not be the toughest test for Oregon’s offensive line this season, but they’ll certainly cause problems on Dec. 30.
The Longhorns have a strong left side of their offensive line with tackle Donald Hawkins and guard Trey Hopkins. The seniors both made the all-Big 12 second team and have been stars in the run game this season, according to Eberts.
“In games against like Kansas State and Oklahoma (both wins), those guys were pretty much flawless in run-blocking,” Eberts said in a phone interview with the Emerald. “They just weren’t getting beat. Texas was running behind them a lot, so that’s definitely the strength of their offensive line.”
Eberts said Texas’ line falls off after Hopkins and Hawkins, though. He said senior right guard Mason Walters is probably the worst pass-blocker in the group and called center Dominic Espinosa a “whipping boy” amongst Texas fans.
The Longhorns also lost starting right tackle Josh Cochran in just their third game of the season, but Eberts said his replacement, Kennedy Estelle, has performed well in Cochran’s place.
“He’s had some trouble with getting beat on inside moves sometimes,” Eberts said. “But with a guy who has the build of a tight end a little bit in the lower body, who really didn’t have much experience when he was thrown into the mix, he’s really played pretty confidently for Texas.”
(Update: Estelle has been ruled academically ineligible for the Alamo Bowl.)
Texas has given up 14 sacks this year, compared to 16 by Oregon, and is averaging just under 200 rushing yards per game (third in the Big 12). The Longhorns’ yards per attempt, however, is 4.47. Oregon averages 6.3 yards per attempt.
Advantage – Texas. Oregon’s offensive line has been good, not great this season. Texas hasn’t been elite, either, but with players like Hawkins and Hopkins, they have the advantage from a personnel standpoint. The Ducks also don’t have anyone nearly as good as Jeffcoat on their front seven, so Texas’ offensive line will have an easier time in San Antonio.
Follow Victor Flores on Twitter @vflores415