Michigan football teams are not supposed to lose games in the trenches. Not to anyone, no matter how good the opposing defensive or offensive lines may be. Time and time again this season, though, the Wolverines have been outplayed and outmuscled along both lines of scrimmage.
Since the beginning of the 2013 campaign, two weaknesses have continuously plagued Michigan.
The offensive line has been abysmal against every team not named Indiana, and the defensive line far too often fails to pressure opposing quarterbacks. Both are causing several other problems on their respective side of the football.
Unless the Wolverines improve in these areas, they are going to have a tough time winning any of their final four games.
By far the most disappointing and troublesome group has been Michigan's guards and center. There are often no holes for backs to run through. Look no further than the season box score for evidence of this. Wolverine running backs are averaging a mere 3.38 yards per carry.
Take away the Indiana game—because let's be honest, anything done against the nation's No. 114-ranked rushing defense is nothing to brag about—and the backs are rushing for 3.13 yards per carry.
Not going to cut it. Not in the Big Ten Conference. Not when the goal of head coach Brady Hoke and his staff is to run a pro-style offense centered around a play-action passing attack.
The offensive line hit a new low on Saturday against Michigan State, though. Redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner was pummeled all afternoon. The Spartans notched seven sacks, seven hurries, 11 tackles for loss and held Michigan to an all-time low negative-48 rushing yards. Somehow, Gardner escaped East Lansing without a major injury.
"It was almost like Devin couldn't breathe," Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook told Josh Slagter of MLive. "There's no worse feeling, the defense is down your throat the whole entire game."
It was not a case of the Wolverines being outmanned up front. In fact, most of the time, they had enough blockers to neutralize the blitz.
Here is an example of the mental errors linemen have been making all year long:
Michigan has six blockers on the line and Fitzgerald Toussaint in the backfield to pick up seven Spartan defenders. The problem on this play occurs when right guard Kyle Kalis begins to block Marcus Rush, who is the defensive end lined up across from right tackle Michael Schofield.
Rush attacks the inside and should be picked up by center Graham Glasgow. Kalis tries to help here, though, and as a result, leaves the B-gap open just long enough for blitzing linebacker Ed Davis to shoot through. Davis easily notches a sack.
Another mistake occurs near the end of the third quarter. Michigan has six offensive linemen in on this play, and Michigan State sends the same amount. With Toussaint in as an extra protector, the Wolverines actually outnumber the Spartans seven to six.
The error is when left guard Kyle Bosch fails to pick up Davis, who is blitzing from the middle linebacker position. Toussaint fails to block the outside linebacker, too.
Gardner never has a chance to do anything with the football.
An awful shotgun snap by Glasgow also resulted in a 20-yard loss. Yet another fundamental error up front against the Spartans.
This is what has been killing Team 134 all season long.
Yes, between the tackles, this line is young and lacks chemistry. Six different players have started on the interior of the offensive line this season. Not one started a game last year, and all of them except walk-on Joey Burzynski have been underclassmen.
Still, the group has not progressed at all this year and is the center of every problem Michigan has on offense.
It is tough to do anything offensively without a respectable rushing attack to keep defenses honest. This also leads to longer third downs and forces Gardner to make too many plays on his own.
As for the nearly nonexistent pass rush, the numbers speak for themselves. In Michigan's past six games, it has recorded just 12 sacks. Eight of the Wolverines' 17 sacks this season have come in two contests (Notre Dame and Penn State). Opposing quarterbacks have no reason to be frightened when they face the Maize and Blue.
Lack of pressure on opposing signal-callers is not helping Michigan's secondary out either. The group already lacks the talent and athleticism needed to be effective in man-to-man coverage. It needs help from the front seven, but it is getting almost none.
Believe it or not, all hope is not lost. Upcoming games against struggling Nebraska and Northwestern give the Wolverines a perfect opportunity to bounce back and salvage what is left of the 2013 campaign.
How many games will Michigan win to close out the season?
The Wolverines defense did a fairly good job of stopping the run against Michigan State. Aside from two rushing plays for 75 yards, one coming when the defense was absolutely gassed late in the fourth quarter, they only gave up 67 yards on the ground. Not a bad day by any means.
Nebraska and Northwestern are not nearly the same kind of defensive juggernauts as Michigan State either. The two rank No. 70 and No. 80 in total defense, respectively. Additionally, the Wildcats are the eighth-worst in the Football Bowl Subdivision in tackles for loss allowed, yielding 3.56 sacks per contest.
Games against Iowa and Ohio State do not appear to favor Michigan, but there is time for improvement.
A change at quarterback is not the answer to any of the Wolverines' problems. As a matter of fact, it would be an absolute disaster to thrust true freshman Shane Morris into the starting role right now. A shoddy offensive line and zero running game only sets Morris up for failure.
Given the beating he took on Saturday and the five drops by receivers, Gardner played well—14-of-27 for 210 yards—outside one interception and a couple of missed reads. Considering the circumstances, though, he should have earned the respect of the Maize and Blue faithful against the Spartans.
If you're hating on Devin Gardner right now, you're just hating. Kid gave you his heart yesterday. Loss wasn't on him.— Nick Baumgardner (@nickbaumgardner) November 3, 2013
Gardner may not be living up to high expectations, but he has done more good than bad and is carrying the offensive load right now.
Unless Michigan is able to turn up the heat on opposing quarterbacks, protect Gardner and open up some holes for Toussaint and Co., it is going to be a rough final four weeks.
Want to talk more Michigan football? Follow me on Twitter at @Zach_Dirlam.