In the first half of Saturday’s 48-42, triple-overtime win over Rutgers, Michigan ran for 17 yards on 15 carries. In the passing game, the Wolverines allowed quarterback Joe Milton to be sacked twice.
Then, as backup quarterback Cade McNamara seized Milton’s job in the second half, the offensive line found its groove. On 19 second-half carries, Michigan gained 77 yards, good for 4.5 yards per carry. While that’s far from revolutionary, it offered the Wolverines a significant step in the right direction. Extrapolated over a full game, it would have been their best mark since week one against Minnesota.
“We kinda came together and said let’s put this game on our backs and start moving the ball up front, start making them respect the run game,” freshman guard Zak Zinter said Monday.
The success carried over to the passing game, too. Buoyed by his ability to make the defensive line uncomfortable by consistently making the right reads, McNamara didn’t take a single sack.
“I thought the offensive line really got their confidence in coming off the ball and trusting their technique and their coaching and trusting themselves, playing as good as they have as a unit,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said.
For offensive line coach Ed Warinner, the showing provided relief from a season of frustration. After losing four starters to the NFL Draft, starting tackles Ryan Hayes and Jalen Mayfield have missed the last three games due to injury. Fifth-year senior center Andrew Vastardis is also out with an injury.
In their place, Michigan started a pair of redshirt freshmen — Karsen Barnhart at left tackle and Zach Carpenter at center. Mayfield’s injury forced fifth-year senior Andrew Stueber to tackle as Zinter slid into the first unit.
All season, Warinner’s challenge has been molding this mishmash of talented but inexperienced lineman into a cohesive unit. It’s a struggle exacerbated by the pandemic-altered offseason and a lack of non-conference games to build chemistry.
“You have to adjust and find out where your strengths lie, find out what you can do, find out what players, what they can do in critical situations, who are your go-to guys. There’s just a lot that you learn about yourself as you play,” Warinner said. “And we’re learning a lot about our team and learning a lot about our guys. I’m learning how to coach them, how to make adjustments with them during a game, how to teach them at practice.”
On Saturday, Michigan appeared to have some of those answers for the first time, buoyed by Warinner’s halftime adjustments. Warinner called it the coaching staff’s best game of in-game adjustments in his three years with the program, though he remained mum on what the offensive line changed.
“It was a collaboration of coaches in there focused on what are gonna be the best six to 10 runs for the second half and passes and boom we got them,” Warinner said. “And then we get to the kids and you give it to all the kids, ball’s in their court, you gotta execute that stuff and they were ready to do it.”
The challenge now is carrying that progress into Saturday’s game against Penn State. “They’re an attacking defense and they’re multiple,” Warinner said, warning of the Nittany Lions’ talent despite their 0-5 record. “So you can’t peg them on this is how they’re gonna line up, this is what they’re gonna do. They’re too diverse, they don’t have tendencies like that.”
Michigan, then, will take what it did well against Rutgers and build on it. With such a young group, Warinner has emphasized the positive things in an attempt to simultaneously build confidence and technique.
And, he hopes, to get the Wolverines some wins in the process.
“We’re a work in progress,” Warinner said. “We’re growing, we got great kids that are hungry still to continue to grow and they’re competitive.”