A week ago, sophomore center Cesar Ruiz stood in front of reporters and made a proclamation.
“Our offensive line will be the one strength of our offense this year,” Ruiz said. When pressed with a follow-up, he doubled down.
Saturday night, in Michigan’s 24-17 season-opening loss to Notre Dame, anyone with two eyes and a television set saw plenty. They saw a quarterback constantly needing to evade oncoming rushers. They saw a normally potent rushing attack held to 58 yards on 33 carries. They saw a group incessantly blown around like a tin roof in a hurricane.
For months, anyone who walked through Schembechler Hall was inundated with buzz about a new offensive line. Simplication from new offensive line coach Ed Warriner, they were told, was going to cure all ills from a group that finished 117th in adjusted sack rate.
So much for that.
“They brought a lot of blitzes at first,” reasoned junior running back Karan Higdon, “brought more guys than we can block.”
The statement — while mathematically true — belies the scarred, fatal flaw plaguing this program. The Wolverines’ offensive line is a problem that has no answer.
It will hold back an offense that is otherwise filled with playmakers. It will force schematic changes that mask its weakness. It could get its quarterback — who showed flashes of brilliance — injured.
With Michigan in opposing territory at the end of the third quarter, hoping to close a double-digit gap, Notre Dame got a free rusher to junior quarterback Shea Patterson’s blindside. Patterson showed his elusiveness, evading a crunching hit, and scrambling for nine yards.
One play later, the Fighting Irish ran a simple stunt, freeing a defensive lineman past Ruiz, and barreling through Higdon. Forced to release the ball early, Patterson heaved up a prayer as he was hit. Notre Dame defensive lineman Julian Okwara was waiting for the easy interception.
As he learned quickly, evade the swarming rush on one play, it’ll just be back the next.
“They got us on that one inside blitz that we didn’t pick up,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “It was a good impression that their front was bringing the entire night. Some we blocked, yeah. Could we be better? Yes. We’ll work to improve.”
Added fifth-year senior defensive lineman Chase Winovich, when asked about the struggling unit: “I know they’re working hard. Just like myself and everybody else on this team, we’ve got corrections to be made. They’re a well-coached group of individuals and they’re going to be sure to leave those corrections moving forward.”
On this night in South Bend, the offensive line was far from the only reason for the loss. The defense over-pursued on nearly every play in the first half, and paid dearly for it. Penalties mounted up — on both sides of the ball — to derail any semblance of momentum. At times, the offensive scheme looked familiarly bland. Notre Dame executed its game plan to perfection, pushing around the interior of Michigan’s defense like rag dolls.
There is reason to believe this team can mend those issues as the season progresses. There is no such reason to believe the offensive line will do the same.
Redshirt freshman James Hudson will undoubtedly see time as early as next week at one of the tackle spots, if for no other reason than there’s nothing to lose. Coaches and players have been sure to commend his talent during spring, with the competition for a starting spot coming down to the wire. He has the frame and athleticism.
Freshman Jalen Mayfield might also get a shot, under the same whimsical rationale. He’s drawn rave reviews from the coaching staff and players.
But Harbaugh, Warriner and the rest of the coaching staff spent weeks of spring practice, offseason workouts and then fall practice, only to conclude that these were the five best offensive linemen to combat a formative Notre Dame front seven. To expect Hudson, Mayfield or any replacement to be a magic elixir would exceed naivety.
Help will come the next couple weeks in the form of Western Michigan and SMU. Neither foe will offer Michigan anything resembling Notre Dame’s talented front seven. It could be a time to grow. It will certainly be a chance to see what the younger options have to offer.
“It’s the beginning,” Harbaugh said, when asked about his level of concern with the offense. “It’s the beginning for us. We’re not treating it like the end.”
But Saturday was a chance to back up the talk against a real opponent in a real environment against a real defense. Fans waited to see what Ruiz and the offensive line had in store. Saturday night, they got their fill. What they saw, though, was just more of the same.
The offensive line is not a strength, at least not yet. It is the common denominator luring an offense back into the familiar confines of mediocrity.