- Sam Wolson/Daily
BY ANDY REID
Daily Sports Editor
Published November 4, 2009
The argument could easily be made that the Michigan football team lives and dies with the play of its offensive line.
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The Wolverines controlled the line of scrimmage against Notre Dame, racking up almost 200 yards on the ground and giving quarterback Tate Forcier plenty of time to throw — which came in handy when he tossed the game-winning pass to Greg Mathews.
In Michigan’s win over Eastern Michigan, the offensive line dominated almost every snap, easily opening huge holes for the running backs. The Wolverines posted nearly 400 rushing yards and cruised to victory.
But the line has been just as critical in Michigan’s losses.
The Penn State defense was in the backfield all day. Excluding the Wolverines' smooth game-opening drive, Michigan managed just 74 rushing yards, and Forcier was sacked five times.
And the line’s influence on the game was never more apparent than last weekend. Against Illinois — which, statistically, has the worst rushing defense in the Big Ten — Michigan had a first and goal from the one-yard line, with a chance to grab a touchdown and push its lead to 20-7.
Four plays later, the Fighting Illini took over on downs.
“Coming off the sideline not converting on those four plays was rough, and obviously was the turning point in the game,” left guard Steve Schilling said at Monday’s press conference. “We could have been a lot more physical. It definitely wasn't scheme.”
The line must make a commitment to play more physically this weekend, when Purdue comes to the Big House for a game that could determine both team’s bowl fates.
Although the Boilermakers, who give up almost 170 rushing yards every game, shouldn’t pose too many problems for the Michigan offense, the Wolverines will want to keep Purdue’s potent passing attack off the field for as long as possible.
But finding that physical play might be an issue — the Wolverines have struggled to find consistency up front since center David Molk, who anchored the line for the first three games of the season, was sidelined with injuries to his foot and anterior cruciate ligament.
The Wolverine offensive line has had four different starting lineups, and a fifth could be employed this weekend.
At yesterday’s press conference, Rodriguez announced that right tackle Perry Dorrestein, who has started the last six games, has been having issues with his back that could keep him from playing on Saturday.
“(His back problem) has been ongoing,” Rodriguez said. “He's been fighting it every week, and it flared up a little with him in last week's ballgame. He's been battling that the last couple weeks, really."
Dorrestein’s injury has forced backup players like Patrick Omameh and Ricky Barnum to step up — and Omameh may start this weekend against the Boilermakers.
Omameh may replace Dorrestein at right tackle, or Rodriguez may have right guard Mark Huyge shift out to tackle and have Omameh fill in at guard. Omameh will continue to take reps at both positions.
Yesterday, Rodriguez confirmed that the latter may be more probable, saying, “We're looking at Patrick Omameh more at guard than tackle.”
“The game was kind of new to him,” Rodriguez said. “He was kind of a late developer coming out of high school, and obviously last year he redshirted and has gotten bigger and stronger. I'm really excited about the future with Patrick.”
The backups’ increased role doesn't mean they're necessarily seeing more action in practice, though. Because of the tempo that Rodriguez likes to bring to his practices, he’s able to give all of his linemen equal reps throughout the week.
“Our second group gets as many reps as our first group, anyway,” Rodriguez said. “It's just sometimes we haven’t rotated some of those second guys in with the first group. We've done a little more this week out of necessity and trying to find the right mix.”
The offensive line isn’t the only position group that could see changes.
Rodriguez has maintained all season that whoever earns the spot will play, which has allowed walk-ons like safety Jordan Kovacs and linebacker Kevin Leach to crack the starting lineup.
Players, specifically on the defensive side of the ball, may get more opportunities for playing time this week and moving forward this season.
“There are some spots that guys are still battling,” Rodriguez said. “We're trying to get more depth defensively. That's been the big issue. We have not played nearly as many guys as we've liked to, but again, sometimes that's because the guys behind the guys that are starting aren't quite ready yet. That's something that we've tried to develop, but they're just not there yet.”