Joe Moore Award finalists square off in Orange Bowl


By Grant Nicholls

James Ogletree and Cody Estremera

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.— Offensive linemen hardly are praised. Usually during a game, the only time a lineman’s name is called is when he commits a penalty or gets beat. That changes each December when the winner of the Joe Moore Award, given annually to the best offensive line in the country, is announced.

The three finalists this year were Georgia, Alabama and Oklahoma, with the latter taking the award.

“Teamwork. It’s what defines football as a sport and it is displayed in its greatest glory – in its most profound necessity – in the play of the offensive line,” the Joe Moore Credo reads. “For it is there that individual achievement only matters if the entire unit is performing.”

Alabama won the award in 2015 and has been a finalist every year since.

Both Oklahoma and Alabama’s offensive lines will face a physical matchup when the two teams play in the Orange Bowl.

Oklahoma’s offensive line

Countless hours have been spent admiring the dynamic play of Oklahoma quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray. His top two wideouts, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and CeeDee Lamb, have also earned plenty of attention, with each amassing 10 touchdowns and over 1,000 yards.

The Sooners’ offensive line, however, remained largely underappreciated for most of the season until it won the Joe Moore Award.

According to the press release announcing the winner, one voter wrote that the unit exemplifies the award’s motto of “100% Pure Beef, Pancakes on the Side.”

“They exemplified teamwork,” another voter said. “They really worked well together in their combination blocks and showed passion to wear their opponents out.”

For players who have known each other as long as they have, that kind of chemistry on the field comes naturally. Four of the starting five came to Oklahoma in the same recruiting class and have spent the last six semesters together, dating back to spring 2016.

Those four alone have made 140 combined starts, contributing to the Sooners’ four consecutive Big 12 Conference championships.

“We’re the closest group of guys you’ll probably ever know and the closest group of guys I’ve ever been around,” senior guard Ben Powers said. “These are the funniest guys I’ve been around… but when we strap it up and put on the pads, it’s all business.”

In his Friday morning press conference, Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley praised Alabama’s defense, especially redshirt sophomore lineman Quinnen Williams, whom he called one of the best defensive linemen he’s ever seen.

For the Sooners to avoid dropping to 0-3 all-time in College Football Playoff games, the O-line must protect Murray and pry open running lanes against a defense Riley said has “draft picks all over the place.”

“(The offensive linemen) expect to play well even against great teams and in great environments, and they do have an intensity and an edge that you need to win those games,” Riley said. “We certainly played well in some of those settings. We’ll need to do it again Saturday.”

Alabama’s offensive line

Alabama’s line took a little longer to get to the normal Alabama standard this season compared to others, simply because there were different players on the line.

Tackle Matt Womack, who started every game last year, broke a bone in his foot, sidelining him for part of this season, while center Bradley Bozeman graduated.

This moved Ross Pierschbacher from left guard to center. Jedrick Wills, who competed for time for most of last season, won the right tackle spot, while fellow sophomore Alex Leatherwood took the right guard spot. Lester Cotton and Deonte Brown have competed against each other for most of the season, with Brown playing more in the second half of the season.

Even with the shuffling, Alabama still had one of college football’s best offensive lines. According to the Joe Moore website, the Crimson Tide allowed a sack on just 3.4 percent of drop-backs, as well as running for negative yards on only 11 percent of its rushing attempts this season.

“(Alabama’s offensive linemen) play as one,” Oklahoma defensive linemen Ronnie Perkins said. “I could find them similar to our O-line: They’re physical, they’re great at what they do, they protect their quarterback and they’re good at running the ball.”

Alabama will put those numbers up against a physical Oklahoma front seven that has 28 sacks on the season.

“Their guys up front are tough,” Alabama center Ross Pierschbacher said. “They’ve got a really good nose guard (Neville Gallimore). He comes out of his stance explosive… Those guys up front do a really good job.”