One of Sherrone Moore’s lessons — one the co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach instilled in the offensive line during fall camp and throughout last season — stuck with Karsen Barnhart. So when asked to explain the unwavering success of the No. 3 Michigan football team’s offensive line, the senior offensive lineman reverted to Moore’s wisdom.
“When the twos go in or the starters go down and then a two goes in, there’s no drop,” Barnhart said Michigan. “I think we’ve seen that the past few weeks. … Just being able to have that gives everyone in the room confidence and gives everybody in the room the trust to keep moving forward.”
That is exactly what the Wolverines have done this season, even amid a slew of injuries. Of all the linemen, only graduate center Olusegun Oluwatimi has started every game.
When graduate left tackle Ryan Hayes missed the Nov. 5 game against Rutgers, junior Jeff Persi slid in seamlessly for his first career start. When senior guard Trevor Keegan missed Saturday’s contest against Nebraska, sophomore Gio El-Hadi filled the void with ease.
“They’ve handled it really good,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. “We are better and deeper because of the experience that some guys have gotten. We feel good about that.”
Barnhart represents that trend as well. Throughout the summer, he competed with senior Trente Jones for the starting right tackle spot following the departure of Andrew Stueber. Jones won the job outright, but injured his ankle on Oct. 8 against Indiana, re-opening the door for Barnhart.
Barnhart says that his mindset hasn’t changed since the summer, and he prepares the same way he did when he came off the bench. His relationship with Jones — who is now healthy — hasn’t soured either.
“We both look at it like a business,” Barnhart said. “We’re here to prove that he’s better than me and I’m better than him. At the same time, there’s no hate, there’s no love lost. I want the best for him, and he wants the best for me. Every day, I want to make him better and he wants to make me better.”
That mindset, if anything, drives Michigan’s success — success that resembles last year’s unit, which captured the Joe Moore Award as the nation’s best. Last season, Michigan allowed 14 sacks; this year, the unit is on a similar pace, having allowed the third-fewest sacks in the Big Ten with 12.
Similarly, the Wolverines’ domineering rushing attack is built on its victories in the trenches. Those feats, Barnhart says, are made possible by the unit’s peak conditioning, which enables success on long drives down the field.
“As offensive linemen, you can tell when you’re driving guys four or five yards down the field or more,” Barnahrt said. “Then being able to see (junior Blake Corum) or (sophomore Donovan Edwards) just fly right past you, you can tell when guys are just getting beat down.”
Saturday’s matchup with Illinois poses another test for a unit that has shown minimal flaws. While the Fighting Illini have faltered in recent weeks — dropping consecutive home games to Michigan State and Purdue — their defensive front is formidable.
Illinois allows just 85.9 rushing yards per game, only trailing Michigan for the second-best mark in the Big Ten. In addition, Illinois has racked up 26 sacks, the fourth-highest figure in the conference.
And even as eyes continue to gaze towards the fast-approaching matchup in Columbus, Harbaugh reiterated the need to take Illinois seriously — especially in the trenches.
“I really feel like our offensive line is going to be tested this week as well,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve got a big challenge and we’re preparing for it now.”
Judging by the way the unit has succeeded in the face of adversity so far this year, it’s a task they’ll be prepared for.