IOWA CITY — Iowa is a team, a place, a culture, built on hard work. The term blue collar — originating just down the road in Alden, Iowa — permeates through the city and the players that Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes select. It’s their identity.
For Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and his fourth-ranked Wolverines, Saturday’s 27-14 victory is a little sweeter. Beating a team like Iowa, one with a “blue-collar mentality,” through the trenches is an accomplishment.
But before Harbaugh got the opportunity to give a history lesson about blue-collar workers postgame and shower praise on his team for out-working the “hard workers,” he had to trust his offensive line to deliver against a formidable Iowa front seven.
“I think it’s just five guys playing together and your coaches trusting you,” senior offensive lineman Trevor Keegan said. “(When) you have five guys who are experienced, they play a lot of ball together, you’ll be able to handle adversity and an environment like this. So, when you got good backs, a quarterback, it makes it easier for us. So, we were playing really confident today.”
But trusting them wholly is easier said than done. The unit was a Joe Moore Award-winning squad a season ago — an honor bestowed upon the best offensive line in the country — but started the season anything but stable. Between lackluster performances and injuries to players like Keegan and senior offensive lineman Karsen Barnhart that kept the line from full strength, there was little to instill confidence that the line would carry over the same success from last year.
But against the Hawkeyes, touting the fifth-ranked defense heading into the game, the offensive line dominated. And it starts with last season’s Joe Moore foundation.
“They’ve been building that callus from last year, and it’s rolled into this year of just blowing people off the ball,” senior tight end Luke Schoonmaker said. “And that’s been their standard. They practice like that, and then they go out and play like that. Maybe we didn’t get the big (runs), but we added up the little ones and then it turned into something a little different.”
The Wolverines rushed for 172 yards, averaging 4.1 yards per carry. Iowa’s previous four opponents only rushed for a combined 292 yards on 2.21 yards per carry. Michigan’s lineman consistently elevated to the next level, pushing back the Hawkeyes’ defensive lineman and reaching their linebackers.
In pass protection, the offensive line allowed just one sack and one quarterback hurry. On the day, it held Iowa to only three tackles for loss.
Perhaps, the step forward for the offensive line has something to do with the personnel.
“I think (the offensive line is) improving, I really do,” Harbaugh said. “I mean, we had Hayes, Keegan, (Oluwatimi), Zinter, (Jones), that five in there today. That hasn’t always been that way through the first five ballgames.”
But that’s not to say that there are no places to continue fixing; Harbaugh knows that, too.
“I think the chemistry is coming — we can get better,” Harbaugh said. “We can get better there. I think we get better in several areas.”
Case in point, on the Wolverines’ only sack and fumble of the game — a combined event — senior offensive lineman Trente Jones missed his assignment, giving free admission to sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy’s pocket. It was a dangerous miscue in Michigan’s own side of the field, and also virtually killed the drive.
The play marked an example of growing pains in personnel shifts, and shows that even when the offensive line is clicking, it won’t be perfect. On the other side, graduate transfer center Olusegun Oluwatimi showed he touts the strength and experience, albeit at Virginia, that can unlock a new level for the Wolverines.
“His experience definitely showed today,” Keegan said. “He was calm, collected, and that goes down to us. If you have a calm center, that makes everything easier.”
Though Michigan’s offensive line showed cause for doubt in its previous performances, against the Hawkeyes, it also provided reason for optimism. Against high-caliber defenders, the Wolverines’ line demonstrated why it won the Joe Moore Award last year, and it showed why it could be one of the best in the country once again, with time.
“Everyone talks about last year, Joe Moore, everything like that,” McCarthy said, flashing a smile. “They were a fantastic offensive line, but I think this line, this year is — I don’t know how much better, but I know they’re better. And just the way that they grow every single week, the way that they collaborate with each other. They love each other and it just shows out there. They’re not just a bunch of individuals out there. They’re one cohesive unit that just dominates anyone who’s in front of them.”
And Saturday, they did just that.