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On Tuesday, the Michigan football team’s offensive line received the latest award in a December that filled the Wolverines’ trophy cabinet: the Joe Moore Award, given annually to the best offensive line in the country.

“It’s an incredible feeling,” senior offensive tackle Ryan Hayes said. “It’s really an honor because they just explained how prestigious the award is and all that goes into it, so it’s pretty cool.”

The unit that plowed Michigan’s way through a top-ranked Ohio State defense ended the regular season third in sacks allowed with just 10 in 13 games and topped the country in tackles for loss allowed with 27. The next best teams in tackles for loss, No. 4 Cincinnati and the Wolverines’ semifinal opponent No. 3 Georgia, come in with 15 more tackles for loss allowed.

The offensive line is a unit that has entrenched itself as the heartbeat of the offense since the beginning of the season, when Michigan rattled off three consecutive games of 300-plus rushing yards — including eight rushing touchdowns against Northern Illinois. 

“I think we knew all the way back in spring ball our guys were special,” Hayes said.

Led by Sherrone Moore, who switched from tight ends coach to offensive line coach this offseason, the unit takes pride in its work, calling themselves the ‘Hogs.’ This tonal shift is just one of many mirroring the attitude change that has taken place throughout the locker room. 

“I think it was a change for sure,” graduate-student offensive tackle Andrew Stueber said. “I just think it was something we needed as an offensive line. The new defensive coordinator was huge for us, to bring in a new fresh young perspective and I think the same happened in the offensive line.”

The offensive line has passed nearly every test sent its way this season and has forced its will upon two top-20 rushing defenses to end the season, in Iowa and Ohio State. What it will face in its next test, though, is on a different level.

Georgia boasts the third-ranked rushing defense in the nation, behind just Wisconsin and San Diego State. The Bulldogs are also 14th in the nation in sacks and top in the country in both red zone defense and scoring defense. While Michigan’s offensive line unit has demolished some of the nation’s top defenses, what waits for them on Dec. 31 is a completely different animal.

“They’re a really impressive defensive front, defensive line,” Stueber said. “Their structure looks good, they’re well coached. They look good.”

Georgia will test Moore’s squad more than any other opponent. The Wolverines’ worst rushing performance of the year came against the Badgers, who are the top rushing defense in the country. But that game also showed the flip side of this offensive line: it protects the quarterback just as well as it buoys the rushing game.

The Oct. 2 matchup in Madison was the first time in 2021 that junior quarterback Cade McNamara showed a glimpse of what he was truly capable of. Throwing for 197 yards, McNamara took advantage of plenty of time in the pocket thanks to the offensive line, which allowed zero sacks. 

For Michigan to find success against the Bulldogs, the offensive line will have to be able to execute in both of those areas: protecting the quarterback and securing push on the run plays. Georgia’s defense is the top in the nation because it’s incredibly talented, disciplined and well-coached. Defensive lineman Jordan Davis, who stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 340 pounds, received Heisman votes for a reason. 

But the Wolverines’ offensive line won the Joe Moore award for a reason, too. In the Orange Bowl, the heartbeat of this team may very well determine its fate.