Heavyweight fight in the trenches

Originally Published: December 31, 2004
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Oklahoma offensive line, with two All-Americans, has been together longer than The Beatles and has more hits.

The USC defensive front, with two All-Americans in its interior, owned every line of scrimmage in the Pacific-10 Conference.

The Sooner linemen have accumulated 184 starts over the course of their careers. Center Vince Carter and right tackle Jammal Brown, the All-Americans, as well as left tackle Wes Sims, have at least 40 starts.

Jammal Brown
Jammal Brown didn't allow anyone to get near Jason White all season.
The All-American Trojans, defensive tackle Shaun Cody and nose tackle Mike Patterson, have started together for three seasons. They know each other so well that when Cody occasionally played defensive end this season, Patterson all but wore a nametag.

"When we're left and right of each other, we feel each other and go with the flow," Patterson said of Cody. "When I've got somebody else at tackle, I've got to be more aware and talk to the guy."

It's strength against strength on the two strongest teams in college football. Even with quarterback Jason White and tailback Adrian Peterson in the Sooner backfield, the best show on the Oklahoma offense may come at the line of scrimmage. It won't be fancy, just fast.

"As a D-line," Cody said, "it's a dream game."

"I don't ever know how to compare that they're the best in all of college," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said of his linemen. "They're the best we've had by a long shot. It's not even close."

The Sooner starters don't fit the preconceived notion of offensive linemen. They are big, yes. But they are also athletic. Brown and Joseph both began as defensive linemen.

"What we saw is a guy that probably could play defensive line in many places for many schools," Stoops said of Brown, "but for us we're usually after some guys [who] have a little better foot speed in our D-line."

Brown, the 2004 Outland Trophy winner, didn't allow a sack or even a quarterback hurry this season. The 6-foot-6, 313-pound Brown gave up one sack as a junior.

"He got meaner this year," Carter said. "He got more confidence in himself, and he got meaner."

Carter tied junior right guard Davin Joseph for the fewest missed assignments in the season among the Sooner linemen with three. Some linemen miss that many on one drive.

"The right tackle is probably the best guy we've faced since that guy from Iowa," USC defensive line coach Ed Orgeron said. He compared Brown to Robert Gallery, the second pick in the 2004 NFL draft.

"The center is really good. On a lot of Adrian's runs, those guys are blocking. I didn't see many defensive fronts play well against them," said Orgeron, who has accepted an offer to become the Ole Miss head coach. "They only gave up seven sacks. They play hard.

"The offensive scheme fits their abilities."

USC Trojans
USC's defensive line is the key to the Trojans' swarming defense.
The same could be said of the USC defensive scheme. The athleticism that the 6-4, 295-pound Cody and the 6-0, 290-pound Patterson bring inside changes the nature of the hand-to-hand combat at the line.

"He's not the typical slug of a nose tackle," Orgeron said. "He's our quickest defensive lineman."

Cody's ability to play end allowed the Trojans to get 6-6, 290-pound sophomore tackle Manny Wright into the lineup. But a sprained elbow and a sprained ankle curtailed the second half of the season for Wright, who missed the last two games because of the ankle. Cody eased back inside without missing a beat.

"They get such a great push that they would be in your face, and then your quarterback is not as accurate," said new Western Michigan head coach Bill Cubit, the Stanford offensive coordinator this season. The Cardinal led the Trojans, 28-17, at the half, but USC limited Stanford to 36 total yards and two first downs after halftime and came back to win, 31-28.

"In the second half, our line broke down, and our guys had more pressure up front," Cubit said. "Our receivers would get impatient and wouldn't run their exact routes. Our quarterback would miss by a foot, foot and a half."

Oregon State coach Mike Riley compared the USC front to the Tampa Bay defense that won the Super Bowl two years ago.

"The key to that was Warren Sapp playing over the guard," Riley said. "It comes down to whether that guard can block him."

That's the key for the Sooners, too, and it's no coincidence that Patterson's nickname is "Baby Sapp." He finished with six sacks, a lot for a nose tackle, and recovered four fumbles, which led the team.

"He's got great hands and great feet," Cody said of his linemate. "He's not all that tall. He's got such great hands. His hands are always moving. If someone grabs him, he's taking their hands off. He's pushing and pulling and his feet keep churning while he's moving his hands."

The athleticism on both lines affords both teams the luxury of keeping their play relatively simple. Oklahoma rarely resorts to double-team, or combination blocks, because they're not necessary. USC does stunt, and does blitz, but the majority of plays at the defensive line are made without tricks.

"If we can handle a single block," Orgeron said, "we win. If they can single-block us, they win."

When the Sooners are on offense, peel yourself away from watching the ball and keep your eyes on the line of scrimmage. It will be a long time before you see this much talent in a college game again.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE