When people spewed prognostications this offseason about Michigan’s new-look offense they generally centered around one foundational assumption: The offensive line was going to be a strength.
Four of five starters returned from a year ago. The fifth starting spot was a choice of luxury — between an athletic young talent in Jalen Mayfield and an experienced commodity in Andrew Stueber — rather than desperation. Michigan coach Ed Warriner was set to return for a second season. For the first time in years, the trenches would be of no concern.
At least that’s how the thinking went.
Amid the litany of issues plaguing the Michigan offense this year, the inexplicable struggles up front have not been lost on players and coaches.
“The offensive line, we talked about that being an experienced group,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh on Monday. “They’ve got to play good, they’ve got to hustle, protect the quarterback, they’ve got to play physical in both areas, pass protection and the run game. It’s our job to get them to do that.”
The return of senior left tackle Jon Runyan from injury, fresh off a first-team All-Big Ten campaign, promised to bring stability back to the unit. If the 35-14 loss in Madison is any indication, it will take more than full health to restore order.
According to one unofficial count, senior quarterback Shea Patterson was hit 19 times in Saturday’s blowout loss at Wisconsin. After dealing with an oblique injury the first two weeks, Patterson left Saturday’s contest with a shoulder ailment, only to return in the fourth quarter. All the while, the Wolverines’ two quarterbacks completed just 17 of 42 pass attempts.
“That’s another area, we have got to do a better job of protecting the QB,” Harbaugh said. “Shea’s a tough guy, but you have to give him time to throw and make reads.”
Meanwhile, the rushing attack was stifled from the get-go, ostensibly quitting on itself before too long. In total, the team rushed for just 40 yards on 19 carries, the fewest rushing yards in a game since a 2013 loss to Nebraska.
“I thought me coming back in this rotation on the offensive line would help see our struggles the first two games,” Runyan said, “and it was really disheartening that I felt like I wasn’t really able to to do anything extra out there to help us do any better.”
Through three weeks, the rebranded Michigan offense has toiled in all-too-familiar confusion. Intended to be an offense predicated on options, it has instead been defined by indecision and incoherence. The unit has averaged just 5.1 yards per play and has accumulated nine turnovers. Even against two teams with drastic talent gaps, the offense has struggled to move the ball downfield with any balance or regularity.
Some of these offensive struggles fall on scheme. Others on play-calling. But no small share has been delegated to an offensive line that has categorically under-achieved thus far.
“We’ve got backs that need holes. We expect our offensive line to move people, and that didn’t happen this past game,” Harbaugh said. “We weren’t as physical as our opponent on the offensive line or the defensive line.”
Added Runyan: “We got punched in the mouth, early and often, and we were never really able to recover from that. I take credit in being part of that and not being able to help this offense move in the way that I wanted.”
None of this is to say the group cannot find its footing. Just over a year ago, fans agonized over problems up front perceived to be irreversible. Led by an overall simplification from Warriner, the group steadily improved throughout the year. By the end, it was a bona fide strength.
That trajectory, though, makes the shaky start even more confounding.
“Coming into the season, we thought we weren’t going to be back in this boat, kinda struggling,” Runyan said. “I don’t think we’re struggling too bad, how we were last year, with all the experience we got coming back. But, you know, you can’t credit Wisconsin enough.
“… Like I said, we’re just trying to focus on us now. That game is behind us.”