Each week, the No. 25 Michigan football team practices a 9-on-7 drill.
Effectively, it’s football stripped down to its most basic components: the running back takes a handoff up the middle, and the defense tries to stop him. There’s no trickery, stunts or play actions. The drill merely tests if the offense’s blockers can out-duel the defense’s front seven.
It’s old-school stuff, but in the offseason, the Wolverines gave it new meaning.
“In years prior, we would call it 9-on-7, which is what the drill is,” junior offensive lineman Trevor Keegan said. “This year, we changed it to (the) Beat Ohio drill. Now, we’re blasting music, smelling salts, everything. And it’s a pretty physical period, and we love it.”
In the grand scheme of things, renaming a drill will do little to close the canyon-sized gap between Michigan and Ohio State. Culture changes — especially when coming off a 2-4 season — are good, but they won’t be enough to turn the tables after losing the last three matchups to the Buckeyes by a combined score of 149-86.
Still, the renewed intensity reflected in the “Beat Ohio” drill is already apparent in one aspect of the Wolverines’ performance: the offensive line.
Through two games, the starting five has paved the way for a whopping 678 rushing yards while allowing just six tackles for loss and one sack. To put that in perspective, Michigan managed just 786 rushing yards through all six games last season while forfeiting 4.5 tackles for loss and 1.3 sacks per game. It’s still early, but there’s clearly some tangible progress on the offensive line.
In Saturday’s 31-10 drubbing of Washington, Michigan fully embraced the mentality of establishing the run. Fifty-six of the Wolverines’ 71 offensive plays stayed on the ground. On average, each of those runs went for 6.1 yards. That success came in large part thanks to the physicality up front.
“First off, I want to shout the o-line,” sophomore running back Blake Corum said Saturday. “As you guys saw today, they fired off the ball, they were real physical and they made (senior running back Hassan Haskins’s) and my job real easy.”
Even on the running backs’ highlight-reel plays, linemen could be seen clearing paths through the Huskies’ defense. For example, on Corum’s 67-yard touchdown run midway through the second quarter, he had a massive hole to run through thanks to solid down-blocking from Keegan, a strong kick-out block from pulling sixth-year center Andrew Vastardis and a touchdown-sealing hit on the second level from senior tackle Ryan Hayes.
For the most part, Vastardis also anchored the line, seeming to get more push than anybody off the ball. Since being elected captain at the end of fall camp, he looks to have embraced the heavier expectations levied on him this season.
“Vastardis is the leader of our o-line, the leader of our team,” Keegan said. “So he makes all the calls and stuff. We gelled really well in the spring together, and we’ve just been continuing to carry that on.”
Though later revealed to be just a cramp, an injury to Vastardis late in the game offered a reminder as to how quickly things could fall apart for the Wolverines. Even if everyone remains healthy, caveats are always going to apply in wins against Western Michigan and a Washington team that lost to an FCS opponent. It remains to be seen whether the offensive line will be able to sustain this level of dominance up front against tougher teams.
If the newly minted “Beat Ohio” drill is to be believed, the team is preparing for those challenges.