The best college football player in the country didn't score any touchdowns last Saturday afternoon. He didn't rush for hundreds of yards. Didn't throw the ball, didn't catch it, didn't kick it. He didn't sack any quarterbacks or intercept any passes. When the tape of his most recent game is broken down and all the statistics are put on paper and disk, the log of his performance will read more like the menu at Denny's than the résumé of a Heisman Trophy candidate: seven pancakes. The best college football player in the country stands 6'6" (at least) and weighs 320 pounds (at least), with the girth of a grizzly bear and the feet of a ballerina. His job is to move people, and this is sweetly appropriate because, more than any other player, offensive tackle Orlando Pace has moved Ohio State into the race for the national championship.
More than 10 months have passed since the Buckeyes' brilliant 1995 season was trashed in a 31-23 loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor, a defeat that kept the Buckeyes out of the Rose Bowl and still haunts them. "When will I get over that loss?" said coach John Cooper early last week. "Absolutely never." From that team Ohio State lost four splendid offensive players to the NFL: Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Eddie George, wideout Terry Glenn, tight end Rickey Dudley (all taken in the first round) and quarterback Bobby Hoying (third round).
Yet Ohio State has rushed back into the Top 5 in the polls (No. 3 heading into this Saturday's home game against unbeaten and fourth-ranked Penn State). It has done so with laughably easy wins over Rice and Pittsburgh (combined score: 142-7) and with last Saturday's 29-16 defeat of Notre Dame in South Bend. George has been replaced by junior Pepe Pearson, who rushed for 173 yards on 29 carries and scored two touchdowns against the Fighting Irish; Glenn by a six-deep corps of receivers that underscores Ohio State's recent recruiting success; Dudley in part by sophomore John Lumpkin, who like his predecessor also plays basketball for the Buckeyes; and Hoying by the quarterback team of junior Stanley Jackson and junior college transfer Joe Germaine, who against Notre Dame combined for 13 completions in 20 attempts for 185 yards and two touchdowns. "Looks like we're in reload mode around here," said junior offensive tackle Eric Gohlstin after the game. Amid so many riches, which include a voracious defense that limited Notre Dame to less than three yards a carry on the ground, the biggest star, literally and figuratively, is the 20-year-old Pace, who last season became the first sophomore to win the Lombardi Award, given to the nation's best lineman.
Pace emerged from the locker room on Saturday afternoon, resplendent in a hounds-tooth check sport coat and light brown slacks, and signed autographs for fans gathered at the north end of the stadium, a duty that is customarily reserved for quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers. "I thought I had a pretty good game," Pace said dryly. "I thought we all had a pretty good game."
He was followed by Cooper, who clutched the game ball in his right hand. A small boy wearing a replica of Notre Dame quarterback Ron Powlus's blue number 3 jersey came toward Cooper, begging for the ball, a trophy from Cooper's 150th career victory and his 100th game as Ohio State's coach. "Not this one," he told the kid. Moments later Cooper spotted Pace and nodded in his direction. "You probably noticed," Cooper said, "we spent an awful lot of time today running behind the Big Dog."
It is late afternoon, six days before the Notre Dame game. The Buckeyes are nearing the end of their practice on a grass field outside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, and they are straining through torturous 200-yard sprints. Four waves of players are running from one goal line to the other, stopping for a beat, then running back. Pace is unmistakable among the linemen. He is the broadest and tallest of them, with such a wide chest and neck that his round head seems to sit on his round shoulders like a snowman's. He sprints with stunning economy. There is no thud with each stride; Pace simply rolls along, gliding over the turf like a much smaller man. By the last of a dozen killer runs, Pace is leading his group, eating earth in soft, giant bites.
"The guy is unbelievable," says Jim Lachey, a former Ohio State and three-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman who retired last spring after 11 years in the NFL and covers the Buckeyes for a Columbus radio station. "I mean, he's got the whole package: great feet, great hands, long arms. I try to tell people that you just don't see guys who are this big and this good. He could be in the NFL right now, and he'd easily be among the top 10 or 15 left tackles. Right now."
Pace's impact on the Ohio State offense has been palpable. "We've become obviously lefthanded," says offensive coordinator Joe Hollis. "We try to self-scout, to watch for our tendencies, but if you're a pitcher and you've got a 98-mile-per-hour fastball, you're going to throw it, even if the batter expects it."
To wit: Leading Notre Dame 15-7 late in the second quarter, Ohio State ran a touchdown-scoring toss-sweep to Pearson from the Irish's one-yard line, with Pace leading the play. It is rare to give the ball off so deep in the backfield, so close to the goal line. Cooper laughed at the retelling after the game. "Toss-sweep from the one," he said mocking his own team's call. "We can do that because of Orlando Pace."
This utter reliance on Pace took hold a year ago, when George was running for 1,927 yards en route to the Heisman. The signature game was against Illinois on Nov. 11, when George carried for 314 yards on 36 carries and Pace dominated All-America linebackers Simeon Rice and Kevin Hardy. "Simeon was a good challenge for me in my first year," says Pace. "Not too much of a challenge last year."