The hesitation on Elliott Mealer’s shaggy-bearded face was obvious.
The fifth-year senior starting center for the Michigan football team was asked simply if the upcoming matchup with in-state rival Michigan State would be the offensive line’s toughest test since the opener against Alabama.
After briefly mulling it over, Mealer decided to not give in to the temptation to crown the Spartans.
“I guess I don’t know how to answer that,” Mealer said. “We’ve played some really good defenses and they’ve all been different. I wouldn’t say it is or isn’t, but we’ve got to be on our A game. We’ve got to be ready to go, because this is a good defense, and we just got to be ready to go.”
Whether or not Mealer or anyone else wants to actually go out on a limb and say it, the statistics indicate that this is, indeed, the Wolverine’s stiffest challenge since week one.
The Spartans lead the Big Ten in just about every relevant defensive category, including total defense (270.1 yards per game), scoring defense (15.7 points per game) and rushing defense (a paltry 91.3 yards per game).
And they have a mental edge, too, given their recent success in this rivalry. The Michigan offense has struggled to move the ball each of the last four years in this game, and not coincidentally, each of those games ended in a loss for the Wolverines. Michigan was especially punchless last season, when the team managed just 2.3 yards per carry on 36 rushing attempts.
It all means that the Wolverine offensive line will carry the heavy burden of trying to remedy the offense’s recent struggles against the Spartans.
The unit has improved rapidly since halftime of the Notre Dame game — a 13-6 defeat — when Michigan’s coaches decided to put the game on the offensive line and try to grind out drives on the ground against the Fighting Irish. It worked to an extent in the second half of that affair, and the line’s been even better in the last two weeks — the Wolverines put up rushing totals of 304 yards against Purdue and 353 yards last week against Illinois.
But while players and coaches have been complimentary of their first two conference opponents, neither has a defensive front that approaches the quality of Michigan State’s. Mealer knows he and his linemates will have to be especially sharp on Saturday.
“Each week we’ve been getting better,” Mealer said. “I guess you could say as each week goes on, the margin for error is expected to go down, and that’s what we’re hoping for this week and what we need to do to win the game.”
The offensive line will be greeted by a couple of new faces when it hunkers down in the trenches against the Spartans come Saturday. Defensive ends Marcus Rush and William Gholston return, but Michigan State had to replace its defensive tackles after last season, most notably Jerel Worthy, who left school early for the NFL. (Worthy, an Ohio native, is also a friend of Mealer’s from their high school days.)
But if you ask Mealer or Michigan coach Brady Hoke, Michigan State hasn’t missed a beat. Mealer said the Spartan front is still very tough and disciplined, and Hoke said “they’ve filled it in pretty well.”
Another important factor could be Michigan’s ability to keep the opposing defensive line off balance. Last season, Michigan State was constantly able to jump the snap count, meaning the Wolverines found themselves trying to block defensive linemen who were already charging upfield when they had hardly gotten out of their stances.
Mealer squelched those concerns, saying that the offense addressed the issue and hasn’t had any problems since that game.
If that’s truly the case, it just comes down to whether the line can just move the stout Spartans off the ball and control the line of scrimmage, something the unit has done a much better job of in recent weeks.
That’s assuming, of course, that the Wolverines’ strategy will indeed be to attack Michigan State’s front. When faced with the other two tough run defenses on the schedule, offensive coordinator Al Borges elected to air it out against Alabama and initially, at least, against Notre Dame. Might Borges ditch the ground-heavy attack that’s driven Michigan to two straight dominant wins?
“Michigan State does a good job as anyone does (stopping the run), but you can’t abandon what you do best just because of the other team,” Borges said. “You have to do what you do, and have the counterpunches that hopefully loosen them up enough that you can do what you do.”
And that means the offensive line will have to play a cut above how its performed each of the four years.