- Erin Kirkland/Daily
By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 8, 2012
Devin Gardner hardly had a chance in the first quarter last week. The Minnesota pass rush overwhelmed the junior wide receiver turned quarterback from the start, along with his help in the backfield. The pressure halted drives. It ruined Gardner’s rhythm.
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The penetration blew up runs near the line of scrimmage. A missed block allowed a sack. Pressure forced an interception.
An offensive line that had been porous at times this year allowed waves of rushers in the backfield early against Minnesota, limiting Gardner and the Michigan offense to just one first down in the opening frame. In response, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said earlier this week that he would consider mixing in different personnel against Northwestern on Saturday. Specifically, Hoke said redshirt sophomore Joey Burzynski and redshirt freshman Jack Miller would be possible options on the interior of the line, but he cautioned that the move is far from imminent.
“Everything overall needs to be blocked better,” said redshirt junior tackle Taylor Lewan.
That’s just how it needs to be.
“Protection, run game, everything.”
The issue is hardly new, but the added element of poor pass protection is especially vexing. Against Minnesota, Gardner was under near constant pressure. The Golden Gophers sacked him three times and hurried him many more. (“We had way too many sacks,” Lewan said.)
Pressure, along with a poor decision, caused Gardner’s biggest mistake, his interception in the first quarter. On that play, Gardner rolled to his right, where he had to jump out of the way of a defender. As a second rusher converged, Gardner hurried a throw into double coverage on the run.
Typically, the problems have been in the run game. Redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint is well off his pace from last season and is now splitting carries with sophomore Thomas Rawls. For weeks, though, Michigan coach Brady Hoke has said he doesn’t fault Toussaint — while Toussaint hasn’t shown a glimpse of the explosion and break away ability he displayed last year, the line hasn’t made his life easy.
“To be honest with you, it’s everybody, and it’s not just (the line),” Hoke said of Michigan’s toothless ground game. “You can’t keep the eighth guy out of the box. Maybe a back, which we expect, doesn’t beat the eighth guy. There’s a lot of different things that go in when you get 11 guys out there.”
Michigan has had trouble pinpointing the source of the line’s issues — or it has been hesistant to say what the problem is. Toussaint mostly denied there was a problem at all. Hoke said the line had to increase its physicality. And offensive coordinator Al Borges said the mistakes weren’t mental, the lineman just need to finish blocks.
“I wish I had that magic pill,” Hoke said. “I wish I did, because I can’t tell you. I really can’t tell you.”
Still, a change at this point in the season is unlikely. It typically takes weeks to develop chemistry along the offensive line, and Hoke and the coaching staff haven’t singled out specific players for criticism or replacement.
Plus, Hoke noted that he has actually approved of the line’s play for much of the season.
“You have to look at where we’re at, because we’ve played well up there in games also,” Hoke said. “The one thing you can’t do is you have to give the other team a little bit of credit. They’re good coaches, and they’re going to have a good plan.”
To prepare for Northwestern, Hoke has emphasized physicality in practices this week. On Wednesday, Hoke recycled a phrase he hasn’t used in quite some time. He said he could “hear” football, a term he favors when his lineman are hitting up to his standards.
Still, Hoke said he wouldn’t make a decision on Burzynski or Miller until after Thursday’s practice.
“Those guys have gotten some reps with the ones some, but we’ll see,” Hoke said. “I can’t tell you until we finish, and we don’t really finish until Thursday, where everybody’s at from a mental standpoint.”