Not all the blame belongs to the offensive line

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By Everett Cook, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 4, 2013

It’s easy to make snap judgments with a number like negative 48, to pass the blame and to point fingers.

The reason the Michigan football team rushed for the lowest amount of yards in program history is purely because of the offense line, right? Shouldn’t all the blame go to that young, beat-up offensive line?

Well, not exactly. Blame certainly still goes to that unit, but it’s not that easy.

“The backs need to be able to pick (blitzes) up a little better,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke in a press conference on Monday. “There were probably one or two times when the quarterback needed to step up on the field a little better. There’s sometimes the timing of the route. It’s hit or miss. You have 10 guys good, one guy bad, like anything else that’s why it’s a great team sport. You have to have them all the same.”

In Saturday’s 29-6 loss to Michigan State, Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner was sacked seven times on 34 drop-backs. Even on the plays he wasn’t sacked, the redshirt junior was getting hit. By the end of the game, he sat on the sidelines while freshman Shane Morris finished the bludgeoning for the Wolverines. Hoke said Monday that he expects Gardner to play, but fifth-year senior offensive tackle Taylor Lewan said that Gardner was very sore on Sunday.

Of the many factors that played into Michigan’s negative 48 rushing yards, the running backs and their ability to pick up blitzes stood out. The only running back who saw significant minutes on Saturday was fifth-year senior Fitzgerald Toussaint. One backup, freshman Derrick Green, played two snaps and missed one blitz protection pickup.

“Fitz is our best pass protector,” Hoke said. “Has been. For some of the young guys, it’s a little more difficult.”

Hoke’s comments aside, Toussaint struggled in blitz protections on Saturday. Part of that was because he was constantly forced to run play actions that were fooling no one, but still, the protection wasn’t there.

Gardner and his tendency to hang onto the ball a half-second longer than usual was another problem. That might not seem like much, but when a defense as good as the Spartans is barreling down at you, it’s a big deal.

The oft-discussed offensive line, which started its fourth unit in as many games last week, has been a big discussion point in Hoke’s press conferences over the last two months, through all the swaps and the shuffling.

The biggest issue, he continues to say, is experience. The more experience the young interior linemen get, the better. The problem is that Michigan is running out of time and games to see that maturation come to fruition, at least for the 2013 season.

“It’s a youth problem as much as anything,” Hoke said. “The only way to fix it is experience. I wouldn’t trade (freshman guard Kyle) Bosch, (redshirt freshman guard Erik) Magnuson or redshirt sophomore center Graham) Glasgow for anybody, or the other guys who are competing with them. You just have to keep every day grinding, and showing them the looks and doing everything you can.”

Even with the inexperience and shuffling, the offensive line shouldn’t get a free pass. The bottom line is that if Michigan is going to bounce back from the beatdown in East Lansing, the line is going to have to play better.

Still, it’s important to remember that there’s more going on than purely what the guys up front are doing.

“What it really comes down to is going 100 percent on every play,” Lewan said. “When you’re young, you really think about the whole game, 60 minutes of football. In reality, you need to focus on one play at a time. Those guys need to learn that. They will. They’re progressing. Obviously we didn’t have a good day on Saturday, but we’ll get better and we’ll learn from it.”