Resurgent offensive line has Michigan 'ready to roll again'

Adam Glanzman/Daily
Redshirt sophomore Chris Bryant lets out a yell after a touchdown run from fifth-year senior Fitzgerald Toussaint. Bryant shook off jitters in his first start to help power an improved offensive line Saturday. Buy this photo

Daily Sports Editor
Published October 5, 2013

At some point during a long two weeks off for the Michigan football team, the scuffling offensive line made a pledge to Devin Gardner. Allegedly, at least.

At that point, the line had struggled against two meager opponents in Akron and Connecticut. Gardner was sacked four times and hurried eight, and he suffered through his two worst games as the starter. As Gardner tells it, during the week, the line “told me they weren’t going to let me get hit. So I like that.”

Fifth-year senior left tackle Taylor Lewan disputed that, saying he would never pledge something he couldn’t deliver. (“If they bring too many guys, if they bring 11 guys and we have six protecting, I’m not going to be like, ‘OK Devin, good luck!’ ” Lewan said.)

And yes, Gardner was sacked once during the Wolverines’ 42-13 win over Minnesota on Saturday, and he was hurried twice. But Michigan’s adjustments paid dividends. Hoke inserted redshirt sophomore guard Chris Bryant into the lineup and moved redshirt sophomore Graham Glasgow to center, replacing redshirt sophomore Jack Miller. The Wolverines also used an unbalanced line for the first time, with Lewan and fifth-year senior right tackle Michael Schofield on the same side of the line.

The moves worked. And (just about) good to its (alleged) word, the line finally showed signs of life against the Golden Gophers.

This time, Michigan owned the line of scrimmage. Gardner had enough time in the pocket, and he finished with the first interception-free game of his career. The rushing numbers, Michigan coach Brady Hoke admits, were unremarkable: the Wolverines rushed for 113 yards on 35 carries, an average of just 3.2 yards per carry.

But that average dipped as Michigan milked the clock at the end. And, importantly, the line limited the negative plays that plagued Michigan’s offense against Akron and UConn. Until Michigan was running out the clock at the end of the game, Minnesota had just three tackles for loss. Akron and UConn each finished with eight.

“We wanted to run the ball, and we wanted to send that message,” Hoke said. “I really believe the threat was there consistently throughout the game that we were going to run the football.”

That threat had been missing, and it had turned the offense one-dimensional. On Saturday, though, Michigan’s first 10 offensive plays were runs. Gardner didn’t throw the ball until midway through the second quarter.

Hoke said the offensive line was “very happy” with that game plan. Hoke seemed pleased too. After Michigan’s first touchdown run, on their first offensive drive, Hoke found Bryant, whose first six plays ended with a touchdown,

“Nice job,” Hoke told him with a smile and a high five.

Michigan averaged just less than six yards per carry on that drive. Fifth-year senior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint scored on an eight-yard rush. He was hardly touched.

That would become a theme on Michigan’s three other rushing touchdowns. The line executed nearly flawlessly on all of them.

In the third quarter, freshman running back Derrick Green scored on a two-yard run to the left side of the line. Bryant pulled and neutralized his man. Kalis pancaked his. Lewan dominated the end and Glasgow cut a defender. Green wasn’t touched until he reached the goal line, but even there, redshirt sophomore fullback Joe Kerridge provided a lead block.

“We’re going to play Michigan football,” Lewan said. “Re-establish the line of scrimmage, power run game, inside zone, downhill, fullback, running back.”

Later in the third quarter, Toussaint scored again on a 12-yard rush to the left side. He was destined for the end zone before he even received the handoff. The unbalanced set left Minnesota out-manned.

By the time he took the ball from Gardner, Schofield and redshirt freshman guard Kyle Kalis had doubled the tackle, and Kalis peeled off to the linebacker. Lewan, playing on the right side in the unbalanced look, kicked the end out to the sideline. Freshman tight end Jake Butt motioned and sealed the cornerback. Kerridge took on the linebacker. By the time Bryant had finished pulling, he had no one to block. Again, Toussaint just had to brush off an arm tackle to glide to the touchdown.

Lewan said he is encouraged by the turnaround, but he still sees room for improvement. Bryant, despite jitters, was a road grader inside. (“He’s a big, big man,” said the 6-foot-8, 315-pound Lewan. “He’s a very big man.”) But, Bryant was also beat on a swim move for a sack.

Glasgow, Lewan said, actually grades out better as a center than a guard. With Glasgow coordinating the blocking schemes, the Wolverines owned the inside for the first time all year. But Lewan said the line should’ve gotten Toussaint to 100 yards. He finished with 71.

It certainly wasn’t a perfect showing. But when Michigan needed to take the pressure off a struggling Gardner, the line answered.

“It felt like it felt prior to the previous two weeks,” Gardner said. “We were a pretty good offense and we were rolling pretty good. Like I said, we were wayward these past two weeks but we got back to the basics, and feel like our offense is ready to roll again.”