You could see the discontent from fans even during the game: the Michigan football team wasn’t having success running the ball. Though the fourth-ranked Wolverines racked up nearly 120 yards on the ground, it averaged just 2.9 yards per carry on 41 rushing attempts — not the ratio it was looking for. Central Florida was jamming five to six Knights in the box throughout all four quarters, quieting Michigan’s rushing efforts.
Though the fourth-ranked Wolverines still emerged victorious in a 51-14 rout, some fans were upset with the running game, and a great deal of that blame was put on the offensive line. Fifth-year senior right tackle Kyle Kalis wasn’t too upset with the finger-pointing, though. He’s grown used to it after hearing about it in previous years.
“(The fans) gotta relax,” Kalis said. “They gotta relax. We’re fine. … Most fans don’t understand, they don’t really understand the game of football to the level that people who play it do. When they stack the box like that and they stop the run game, you don’t get mad as an O-lineman, you pass the ball because that’s just, scheme-wise, that’s the only option you have. So that’s what we did.”
Back in 2014, when Michigan finished 115th in FBS Total Offense rankings, the offensive line took a lot of the criticism for its 5-7 season. Thinking back to it now, Kalis still thinks the blame was misattributed, but he understands how fans easily grew frustrated with the offensive line and used it as a scapegoat. That criticism will remain as expectations grow for the highly touted Wolverines.
“Hopefully one day, the old stink will be gone,” Kalis said. “I think we’re doing a good job of trying to eliminate that, because it’s not there, I’m telling you.”
The matchup with UCF proved that Michigan can handle pressure against the run by changing gears, and, if anything, it was good exposure for what may come later in the season.
“As an offensive line, it’s nice, because even if we aren’t that successful in the run, just getting the practice at that, getting the practice to see that many guys in the box,” Kalis said. “Eventually, down the season, down the line, we may have to play a team that does it again to us in a dire situation when we have to run the ball, so we have to be prepared.”
Throughout Saturday’s game, the Wolverines did what they needed to do and what they will need to do in the future when they can’t run the ball: they went through the air.
Redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight threw for 312 yards and four touchdowns, including a 45-yard touchdown pass to fifth-year senior wide receiver Amara Darboh for his longest pass of the season.
“Coach Harbaugh was actually talking about it the other day, about how he hasn’t had a quarterback who could complete the deep post route in like five or six years or something, on a consistent basis,” Kalis said. “Wilton, being able to complete those big passes this early on is a good thing for all of us.”
Kalis thinks that Speight is doing a “hell of a job,” and when you couple that with the prolific wide receivers and the protection coming from the offensive line, Michigan has a winning recipe.
On the offensive line itself, three fifth-year senior starters (Kalis, Erik Magnuson and Ben Braden) have led the way with help from junior center Mason Cole and sophomore left tackle Grant Newsome. Competition from newcomers like freshmen Ben Bredeson and Michael Onwenu has made the group even hotter. Without a doubt, the offensive line is experiencing the most depth it has had in recent years.
Finally, after playing with teams much less experienced than the 2016 Wolverines, Kalis is getting to see what it’s like to play for the No. 4 team in the nation, which is as high of an honor Michigan has seen since the 2007 Rose Bowl.
“A lot of guys might say, ‘The rankings don’t mean anything, we don’t care about the rankings,’ but no, we care about the rankings,” Kalis said. “We want to be the highest ranked as we can possibly be. The expectation is getting higher every week, so that’s the goal.”