2017 Season in Review: Offensive Line
With the Michigan football team’s 2017 regular season in the books, the Daily looks back at the performance of each unit this year and looks ahead to the future in 2018. In this edition: offensive line.
One step forward, one step back.
That described the state of Michigan’s offensive line this season. The Wolverines’ running game blossomed, featuring as the clear focal point of the offense. At times, if you squinted hard enough, you could see shades of Jim Harbaugh’s Stanford outfits — more so than through his first two years in Ann Arbor.
After a few inconsistent performances early in the season, during which Michigan seemed to run an equal amount of gap-blocking and zone schemes, the Wolverines hit their stride midway through the year.
It wasn’t very nuanced. Michigan found success by becoming less diverse, running mostly powers and counters. But it got the job done.
Pass protection, meanwhile, was another story.
Quite simply, Michigan regressed badly. Through 12 games, the Wolverines gave up 34 sacks, ranking No. 112 in the nation. Last year, Michigan ranked No. 27, allowing just 18 sacks total.
This year’s struggles haven’t just manifested themselves in sacks allowed, though. Time after time, the Wolverines’ quarterback — whether it was Wilton Speight, John O’Korn or Brandon Peters — had to evade heavy pressure.
That dictated what Michigan could do on offense, from the routes receivers and tight ends could run to how many extra blockers the Wolverines had to use.
Of course, allowing your quarterback to take so many hits isn’t optimal. That’s something Michigan learned twice this year, with both Speight and Peters suffering injuries after big hits.
Much like blocking itself, everything on offense is interrelated. The carousel under center made it difficult to run the ball, as tougher opponents could key in on it. Despite how well the Wolverines ran the ball at times, their struggles in pass protection show that a blend of the two is needed to field a successful offense.
HIGH POINT: The Wolverines spent plenty of time paving holes in the run game.
Those efforts began at Indiana on Oct. 14, when Michigan gashed the Hoosiers for 271 rushing yards on 44 carries with three touchdowns. That day, Karan Higdon became the first Wolverine since Denard Robinson in 2012 to run for 200 yards — and the first running back since Mike Hart in 2007 to reach that mark.
Against Rutgers, Michigan totaled 334 rushing yards and four touchdowns. The Wolverines improved upon that only one week later, averaging 10 yards per carry against Minnesota en route to 371 total rushing yards.
“It was a stalwart performance,” Harbaugh said after that game. “... I’ve never seen that many plus 50-yard runs in one game, any team I’ve ever coached or been on.”
LOW POINT: Well, this could either have been the lasting image of Speight lying crumpled on the ground, three of his vertebrae having been cracked, or Peters knocked out cold after a jarring hit.
Against No. 5 Wisconsin, Michigan gave up two sacks and seven tackles-for-loss. One week later, No. 9 Ohio State racked up five sacks and seven tackles-for-loss.
The ground game couldn’t get going against any of the Wolverines’ tougher opponents, either.
Michigan ran the ball 39 times for 102 yards in a 14-10 loss to Michigan State, 37 times for 58 yards in a 24-10 loss to the Badgers and 36 times for 100 yards in a 31-20 loss to the Buckeyes.
THE FUTURE: Michigan’s problems with pass protection might not be immediately solved. Michigan will lose Mason Cole, a dependable four-year starter at left tackle, without any obvious replacements. Right tackle also remains a question mark entering next year.
The interior of the line does appear to be set, with some combination of Ben Bredeson, Cesar Ruiz and Mike Onwenu. With those three, Michigan has a strong foundation to build upon in the run game. All three fit perfectly in a gap-blocking scheme, with each displaying the requisite agility and strength to block powers and counters successfully. Mental errors — which plagued Bredeson his freshman year and Onwenu earlier this year — were cut down as the year progressed.
But that trio, too, will need to improve its pass blocking if the Wolverines are to make strides on offense next year. It all starts up front, and Michigan was far too inconsistent this season.