As Michigan’s offense entered the season with sky-high expectations, every conversation was rooted in one assumption: The Wolverines would have a steady, reliable offensive line.
It was built into the widespread confidence in Shea Patterson’s growth and was the foundation behind the lack of concern in a run game that lost its top two ball-carriers.
And the assumption made sense. Everyone except redshirt freshman right tackle Jalen Mayfield was a returning starter. Senior Ben Bredeson was a preseason All-American at left guard. Jon Runyan, Cesar Ruiz and Michael Onwenu had all blossomed into steady presences over the second half of 2018, earning varying All-Big Ten honors.
Then Runyan missed the first two games with a hand injury, creating instability in a unit that was supposed to be anything but. The result wasn’t pretty. The Wolverines struggled to pass protect against two overmatched defensive lines in Middle Tennessee State and Army.
Against Wisconsin, the unit finally burst. Shea Patterson rarely had time to look past his first read, and the running backs couldn’t find running lanes in a 35-14 loss. It forced Jim Harbaugh into an assessment he couldn’t have dreamt of three weeks earlier.
“Offensive line, we talked about that being an experienced group,” Harbaugh said. “They gotta play good, they gotta hustle and they gotta protect the quarterback and they gotta play physical in both areas, in pass protection and the run game. It’s our job to get them to do that. We’ve got backs that need holes. We expect our offensive line to move people and that didn’t happen this past game.”
So as Michigan prepared to move beyond Wisconsin and salvage the rest of its season, physicality and hustle were heavy focuses in practice in the lead up to Saturday’s win over Rutgers. “We had a good week last week from a physicality standpoint,” Bredeson said. “I thought we really upped that from the week before against Wisconsin.”
But the Wolverines’ struggles went beyond that. An offensive line whose reputation was predicated on familiarity couldn’t get out of its own way, mixing pre-snap penalties with holding calls and missed assignments.
“Just trying to make sure we get all our calls situated, trying to stay out of third-and-long situations,” Bredeson said of the focuses in practice after the Wisconsin game. “If we can get some yards on first and second down, then we won’t have to be in such obvious passing situations and that helps our protection a lot. Just working with (Ruiz) and getting the communication from all the positions on the line, letting everybody know where things need to be, where to slide, where we’re IDing things.”
The result was an offensive line performance that finally lived up to expectations. Patterson was still brought down for one official “sack,” but it came on a scramble out of bounds, just short of the line of scrimmage.
Pressure, in the traditional sense, was virtually non-existent. And for a team that was never supposed to worry about its offensive line, that’s a promising sign, even against Rutgers.
“I thought the pass pro improved a lot,” Bredeson said. “We were able to make some big in-game adjustments in the middle of the drive, which was something that we were really happy to see. And we had some small mistakes, came together, corrected it and were able to keep moving with no issues.”
Added Harbaugh: “That’s some of the things that we’ve been seeing in practice for a couple months now. And it was good to see that in the game.”
Now, the question becomes whether Michigan can replicate that performance against Iowa. When a reporter described the Hawkeyes as a “measuring stick” for the Wolverines’ growth since Wisconsin, Bredeson said, “You hit it right on the head.”
That, of course, can go two ways. Replicating its performance in Madison would be a death blow to Michigan’s season goals. But right now, that’s not what this offensive line is thinking about.
“Going against a strong defense like (Iowa) — I thought we had a good offensive week this past week,” Bredeson said. “And just carrying that on and getting to that next step would be huge for us.”