Like another road loss to a ranked team, the sight of a Michigan quarterback running for dear life is nothing new. Last year, it led to injuries for Wilton Speight and Brandon Peters. It nearly did the same to Shea Patterson on Saturday, as the junior quarterback missed parts of the fourth quarter with cramps after being pressured all night.
Officially, Patterson was sacked three times and hurried on another six occasions. In reality, though, it was much worse.
Patterson rarely received a clean pocket to throw from — pressure from the edge or Notre Dame stunts came almost instantaneously. It showed in Michigan’s offense: quick throws were its only reliable way of moving the ball, and the Wolverines had just three plays of 15 yards or more with one offensive touchdown.
But during Monday’s press conferences, coach Jim Harbaugh said he wasn’t concerned — and rather encouraged — by his offensive line’s performance.
“I thought it was improved,” Harbaugh said. “We look at it and there was quite a few boxes that were checked (as) this is improved. We’ll continue to get better, but it was one of the areas I think we’re improving in.”
Michigan started Jon Runyan Jr. and Juwann Bushell-Beatty at tackle, along with Ben Bredeson, Cesar Ruiz and Michael Onwenu — left to right — on the interior Saturday. Despite a plethora of glaring mistakes and the presence of reserves like redshirt freshman tackle James Hudson and junior guard Stephen Spanellis, Harbaugh said he’ll stick with the same group next week against Western Michigan.
“I think the way we played this week is the way we’ll play the next game with the offensive line,” Harbaugh said.
Junior tight end Sean McKeon and sophomore wide receiver Nico Collins echoed similar positive sentiments about the group, noting that fall camp isn’t the same animal as the Fighting Irish’s elite front seven.
“I thought (the line) looked good,” McKeon said. “The offensive line, obviously, they gotta work to build chemistry maybe even more than they tried to build in camp. So just got to build more chemistry up front.”
Added Collins: “(It’s a) great o-line. I feel like the criticism they (get) shouldn’t be talked about because I know how hard they work.”
Harbaugh and his players’ comments heavily contrast what’s being said outside Schembechler Hall. Fans, understandably frustrated by Michigan’s fourth-straight loss dating back to last season, were quick to scapegoat the offensive line for Saturday’s results.
And while there were other issues — defensive penalties and the spectacular play of Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush — the offensive line was the most detrimental by far. It cost the Wolverines the ball or points on four separate occasions.
In the first quarter, Patterson took a 17-yard sack that pushed Michigan out of redshirt sophomore kicker Quinn Nordin’s range. Later, on second-and-goal at the two, Notre Dame got to Patterson again, forcing the Wolverines to settle for a field goal. The Fighting Irish’s pressure was also pivotal to Patterson’s interception and fumble — though both were partially avoidable.
Despite those plays, however, Harbaugh was encouraged by his quarterback’s performance.
“The thing that stood out the most was his accuracy, location of the balls,” Harbaugh said. “He was accurate all game. … First time in a game situation, I thought he ran (the offense) extremely well.”
That’s precisely why Michigan’s offensive line play is so frustrating for fans. For all the flashes Patterson showed Saturday, he won’t realize his potential if a defensive lineman is constantly in his facemask two seconds after the snap. And it certainly won’t be realized if Patterson’s hurt.
Harbaugh said his line has “improved”, and to be fair, that’s a relative word. He could genuinely feel like it has taken a step up from last year.
But it wasn’t good enough Saturday. Not even close.
Michigan’s offensive line has a long way to go. And no amount of Harbaugh and his players singing kumbaya changes that.