The season-opening loss to Notre Dame displayed numerous truths about the Michigan football team. It showed that the addition of one player — junior quarterback Shea Patterson — couldn’t fix everything. It showed the beginnings of a heavily-penalized defense. It showed a continuation of the Wolverines’ struggles on the road.
But at the defeat’s core was an offensive line that was outmatched. Michigan allowed three sacks while struggling to generate substantial push for senior running back Karan Higdon. That combination — a quarterback with little time and a running back with little room — culminated in only one offensive touchdown against the Fighting Irish.
“Notre Dame showed us what we needed to work on,” said redshirt junior left tackle Jon Runyan Jr. “For me, it was definitely pass protection.”
The emphasis has been clear in the following weeks, albeit versus lesser competition. Michigan’s offensive line has allowed five sacks in its four games since, as Patterson has had noticeably cleaner pockets from which to throw.
“Pass protection is going pretty well,” Runyan said. “… Shea’s had time, and when he has time, he can make unbelievable plays with his arm.”
Patterson’s ability was apparent in Michigan’s game-winning drive Saturday. He found redshirt junior tight end Zach Gentry twice for gains of 12 and 22 yards to set up Higdon’s go-ahead touchdown.
Most importantly, they were completions that were well protected. Patterson went through multiple progressions before throwing both passes, allowing Gentry enough time to get open thanks to his offensive line.
Now, Runyan sees run blocking as his unit’s biggest area for improvement. Excluding jet sweeps and quarterback runs, the Wolverines ran for 126 yards on 33 carries Saturday. That’s respectable but, especially with Higdon’s yards-after-contact, not ideal.
“We’re not at the point we need to be,” Runyan said. “I think we averaged (around) three yards per carry last week, and we want to get that up around four, four and a half. … That’s something that’s been a big point of emphasis as an offensive line.”
There’s been no shortage of criticism for the group this season. From former standout receiver Braylon Edwards to fans, the Wolverines’ offensive line has been dragged through the mud on social media.
It’s been a challenge for Runyan to manage all that noise. For he and fifth-year senior right tackle Juwan Bushell-Beatty especially — the most popular targets of criticism — it’s a delicate balance using it as motivation and not listening at all.
“The narrative has been going in ever since I’ve been here that the Michigan offensive line hasn’t been up to the standards that people outside this building would like,” Runyan said. “We take that personally, and we’ve been trying to (change that) every day.
“When it comes to certain things that go on during the game, people have no idea what our scheme is on the play, no idea how we block it. … Stuff like that, we take it with a grain of salt it doesn’t affect me too much.”
It helps Runyan to know he’s an everyday starter. Even with his struggles and growing hype around redshirt freshman James Hudson and true freshman Jalen Mayfield, coach Jim Harbaugh hasn’t wavered on his starting group.
That’s allowed chemistry to build up front. Last week, junior guard Ben Bredeson said communication was the offensive line’s biggest jump since Notre Dame — something Runyan now believes comes naturally on the left side.
“Being with Ben working with him since the beginning of camp, we have that non-verbal communication going where we don’t really need to say much — we know what to do,” Runyan said. “Having that consistency has been really helpful.”
Added Harbaugh: “(Runyan’s) been healthy, stronger this year playing with physical demeanor. He’s always been athletic, but he’s stronger at the point of attack. Playing good football.”
With their play on Saturday, perhaps that last point can be extrapolated to the rest of the offensive line as well.