MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — All season long, the Michigan football team confidently relied on its offensive line.
Earlier this week, junior quarterback Cade McNamara called it the “heart and soul” of the team. Fifth-year offensive tackle Andrew Stueber echoed a similar sentiment, referring to the unit as the Wolverines’ “heartbeat.” It’s a luxury most college football teams don’t enjoy.
But during Friday’s College Football Playoff semifinal, Michigan’s offensive line could be described as an Achilles heel.
The second-ranked Wolverines were overwhelmed in the trenches from the outset, and with its best strength neutralized, Michigan’s offense deteriorated. Just a month after toppling Ohio State and dominating Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game, the Wolverines careened down to Earth in a 34-11 Orange Bowl loss against No. 3 Georgia.
From split zone blocking to pin-and-pulls, offensive line fundamentals emerged as a staple of Michigan’s offensive success throughout the regular season. Much of the Wolverines’ identity was predicated on staying ahead of the sticks on first and second down, but with its offensive line overmatched, Michigan couldn’t manage that against the Bulldogs on Friday. Given Georgia’s star-studded front seven, the Wolverines were dead in the water once that became clear.
“We just didn’t execute the way we were playing, not executing the way we had been all season,” sixth-year center Andrew Vastardis said. “That’s just top to bottom.”
After racking up a gaudy 5.2 yards per carry over its first 13 games, Michigan mustered just 88 yards on 27 attempts against Georgia. The lack of success on the ground put the Wolverines in long, unfamiliar down-and-distance situations against one of the most talented college defenses in recent memory.
Throughout the season, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis found success in a run-first offensive approach — a rarity in modern college football. In an era of up-tempo spread systems, Michigan laid the blueprint for teams looking to go against the grain.
That is, until Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning ripped it to shreds.
Lanning’s combination of edge pressure and pre-snap stunts gave the Wolverines’ Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line fits. The Bulldogs were in McNamara’s face seemingly every time he dropped back. That was new for McNamara, who was the least sacked quarterback among Power Five signal-callers this season.
With Michigan unable to stave off pressure, Harbaugh was forced to hand the keys to freshman quarterback J.J. McCarthy come the second half
“The protection wasn’t as good as it needed to be,” Harbaugh said. “J.J. gave us more of a chance to escape it, avoid it and run (and) that was the reason we made that switch.”
On the other sideline, the Bulldogs smelled blood in the water. With that came an opportunity to prove a point.
“There was a little chip on the shoulder of the defensive guys,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “Their offensive coordinator is the Broyles Award (winner) over coach Lanning, who we think did a hell of a job. Their offensive line — the Joe Moore Award — you know what, somebody that made that decision that’s a lot smarter than me, but we’ve got a hell of an offensive line, too, and our guys played with a chip on their shoulder tonight.”
That chip on Georgia’s shoulder made all the difference at the line of scrimmage. The Bulldogs turned Michigan’s biggest strength on its head on Friday night, sending the Big Ten champions back to Ann Arbor empty-handed.