In last week’s game against Brigham Young, the Michigan football team’s offensive line walked up to the line of scrimmage and saw something it had been waiting to see for a long time.
The Wolverines looked across and saw the Cougars’ defense sweating and panting, with hands on hips from sheer exhaustion.
Michigan’s offensive line has taken a bulk of the criticism for rough seasons in 2013 and 2014, and in that time, they were usually the ones in the position the Cougars found themselves in on Saturday.
“We haven’t really had much of that in the recent past, but it’s an awesome feeling knowing that when you go up to the line of scrimmage, you’re looking into a guy’s eyes (and) you know you have him beat already,” said redshirt junior guard Kyle Kalis on Monday. “That’s something that we haven’t had. We have it now in full effect, and it feels good.”
Another benefit comes in the form of big plays, of which Michigan has had many in the run game. Junior running back De’Veon Smith’s 60-yard touchdown run Saturday provided one such highlight.
Smith did most of the heavy lifting on that particular run, but Kalis sprung ahead and was the first lineman into the end zone to celebrate, quickly joined by four other players.
“It’s nice,” Kalis said. “It’s the reason why we’re all here. It’s the reason why I came here, the reason why a lot of guys came here. When I saw him in the end zone and embraced him, that was a good moment for both of us. It just feels good. It’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
The Wolverines have begun to taste more of those rewards this year as they have shown improvement. They went three-and-out on their first possession Saturday but then went to work and scored on their next five (four touchdowns and a field goal) to take a commanding 31-0 lead.
In those five drives, they gained 344 yards on 38 plays, spanning 18:23. For the game, they possessed the ball for 38:38, wearing out BYU’s defense to the point of submission.
“If you go get a play and you pancake somebody, your adrenaline is going through the roof, so that carries into the next play,” Kalis said. “The next play, if you do good, more adrenaline, and it keeps carrying on. That’s how you develop an identity, just having good plays over and over again.”
After the past two years, Michigan’s line had to build its reputation little by little. After all, the Wolverines’ domination of BYU came three weeks after a 24-17 road loss to Utah in which they rushed for just 76 yards.
Part of that progress can be attributed to Tim Drevno, the team’s offensive line coach and offensive coordinator, whom head coach Jim Harbaugh brought from Southern California in the offseason. Kalis said Monday that the current linemen — many of whom made up the line last year — had made good plays in the past, but not all together and not often enough. This year, they have come together as a unit.
“I think as you go through game to game, you get used to everybody and how you communicate and how they handle adversity and you get to know one another,” Drevno said. “That’s part of the process of trusting one another. The quicker you can trust, the quicker you have success, so I think that’s been a real big part of where we are today.
“It’s gradual. They get used to your coaching techniques and how you coach and how you prepare and what you demand from them. It’s just them getting to know you, you getting to know them — and the quicker you can do that, the quicker you have success.”
The line has come along smoothly for Michigan, without many issues along the way. The Wolverines have rushed for more than 200 yards in every game since Utah and allowed just three sacks on the season. Eight teams have allowed fewer in the same number of games.
Drevno was hard on his unit after a lackluster performance against the Utes, but he and Harbaugh haven’t been shy about singing the offensive line’s praises as it has improved. They grade each player after every game and note the improvement.
“That’s definitely an awesome feeling,” Kalis said of the encouragement. “That’s fun. That’s why you play. It’s to get the respect of your brothers, to get the respect of your coaches and look good playing out there. Just have fun. That’s why you play the game of football.”