Back before the season began, coach Brady Hoke declared that Michigan would return to power football. Visions of a ball-control offense powered by a dominant running game danced in the minds of Wolverine fans.
But, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, and Michigan’s lackluster offensive line couldn’t deliver the push needed to realize Hoke’s goal.
Offensive coordinator Al Borges reverted back to plays similar to what the team ran in previous seasons. Quarterback Devin Gardner was forced to run for his life, playing behind a porous offensive line that struggled to defend him on passing downs or create seams for the running game.
As the season wore on, Gardner was forced to carry the offense and paid the price for doing so. Not only was he hammered by opposing defenses, but his decision-making also suffered. Instead of throwing the ball away, he would try increasingly dangerous passes with bad results. With every mistake, Gardner would hang his head and return to the sidelines.
He hit bottom against Michigan State and Nebraska, getting sacked 14 times and rushing for minus-78 yards in disappointing losses.
The Michigan coaching staff made a stark realization: No amount of spread-option magic or complicated play-calling can make up for poor offensive line play.
Against Northwestern, the tide turned. With Fitzgerald Toussaint out due to a concussion, freshman running backs Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith gained yardage behind an offensive line that finally began to jell.
Al Borges acknowledged the improved performance of the offensive line in a press conference on mgoblue.com.
“We pushed the line of scrimmage really well in this game," he said. "There were very few times we got the ball and got clobbered.”
Gardner was still under pressure, getting sacked five times and very nearly throwing multiple interceptions. But the offensive line opened up running lanes for Green and Smith, who ran aggressively. The offense gained 139 rushing yards after finishing with negative yards in losses to Michigan State and Nebraska.
Those losses have put Michigan’s goal of winning the Big Ten out of reach, but if the offensive line has turned the corner, Michigan still has a chance to win 10 games this season.
Has the offensive line found the right combination to run the ball?
“The young players are starting to get the idea on how to do this stuff,” Borges said. “They’re getting chemistry and backs start getting free all of a sudden…They’re getting a better feel for it.”
The offensive line needs to show that the Northwestern game wasn’t a fluke. Iowa and its No. 9-ranked defense in the country will be a huge challenge.
A strong performance—and a victory—on the road versus Iowa would give a Michigan a glimmer of hope as they return to face Ohio State in their regular-season finale.
“If you get a rhythm [running the ball] you can pound the other team into submission,” Borges said.
Michigan fans heard talk like this at the beginning of the season.
Can the offensive line deliver?
If so, Michigan might have a surprise for Ohio State. But first things first: They need to show it against Iowa.