Two Saturdays ago, redshirt junior offensive lineman Juwann Bushell-Beatty came off the bench against Michigan State.
The Wolverines were trailing 14-3, and nothing was going right for Michigan’s offensive line.
Redshirt sophomore Nolan Ulizio started at right tackle, and he continued to get beat. The Spartans’ larger, more physical defensive front kept pounding at Ulizio, and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh saw that it was necessary to bring on a substitute.
Sure enough, Michigan State got another sack just a few drives later. Michigan’s offensive line couldn’t hold off the Spartans’ pressure, and over the course of that game, fifth-year senior quarterback John O’Korn was sacked four times.
Saturday night at No. 2 Penn State, the problem persisted: O’Korn was sacked seven times.
The offensive line has been penetrable against ranked opponents this season, but there is one area in which it has grown.
It finally found its fifth man. The right tackle position had gone back and forth all season. Sometimes Ulizio played, sometimes Bushell-Beatty came in, and other times redshirt junior Jon Runyan entered the fray.
But since coming off the bench against Michigan State, Bushell-Beatty has started in every game. Still, the switch hasn’t kept O’Korn upright.
“He’s in there playing, being available, being durable,” Harbaugh said. “(Bushell-Beatty’s) play has improved, and striving to be even better.”
Harbaugh said that he wouldn’t use the word “well” to describe the offensive line’s performance against Penn State — after all, the team lost. But there were components of the line’s play he thought were good nonetheless.
“After watching the tape, the line played very physical,” Harbaugh said. “Their performance had some really good things and some things we’d like to have done better. Juwann, being part of that line, I really thought he matched up physically and really fought hard.”
Bushell-Beatty’s consistency is one of those “good things” that Harbaugh talked about.
One advantage Bushell-Beatty has over many of his teammates is experience. It’s his fourth season with the team. He redshirted the year that Michigan went 5-7 in 2014. Though he wasn’t playing that year, he learned how valuable it is to face and overcome adversity.
Now that Michigan has suffered its second loss of the season, Bushell-Beatty hopes his teammates can embrace the same mindset that he did a few years ago.
“Although we may not want to learn through (a loss), it can teach us a lot,” Bushell Beatty said. “It helps you shape yourself as a player. Winning every game doesn’t really teach you anything.
“It may be nice, but when you learn from losing games and trying to come back from upsets and disappointing events in your season, it teaches you to refocus and re-compartmentalize what you have in mind.”
Bushell-Beatty found that all out early in his career, and now he’s seeing it all again. A Big Ten championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff — Michigan’s goals at the start of the year — won’t come without outside help.
“Things aren’t necessarily in our hands anymore,” Bushell-Beatty said.
But the Wolverines need to play as if their fate still is in their hands. Bushell-Beatty took on that mentality individually four years ago, and the dividends are just starting to show.
He’s getting more playing time than ever and improving each week.
He relishes the fact that the outcome may not always turn out the way he wants.
“I want it to be a challenge,” Bushell-Beatty said. “I don’t want everything to be handed to me that easily.”