In 2009, Michael Lewis — one of the best modern journalists and authors — penned a piece for The New York Times Magazine entitled, “The No-Stats All-Star,” focused on then Houston Rocket Shane Battier and his impact on winning that extends beyond the common box score.
Lewis marveled at the overwhelming positive impact Battier had on his team and the overwhelmingly negative impact he inflicted upon his opponents. Fans loved Battier. Teammates loved Battier. And for the entire 2008-09 season, Battier only averaged 7-5-2 while shooting 41 percent from the field.
A true “no-stats all-star” whose direct impact on winning had to be observed to be believed.
Similar to Michigan’s offensive line, this unit’s impact positively on the offense and negatively on a defense must be seen to be understood. A box score never does an offensive lineman justice. I mean, how do you even describe an offensive lineman statistically?
There are no common stats. Sure old school fans probably still count knockdowns, double teams, missed assignments, and the ever-revealing Natty Lights crushed after games, but those only tell a fraction of the story.
Others will simply view an opposition’s tackles for loss and sacks, compared to a team’s rushing total, and formulate an opinion based on that. While helpful, this is still too narrow of a scope.
Nerds have created win-rate percentages among others, but the common man isn’t spending copious amounts of time on Next Gen Stats or paying for a PFF subscription in this economy. The last thing most fans want to do is look at spreadsheets outside of business hours.
Online offensive line enthusiasts such as Brandon Thorn and Geoff Schwartz have become a quasi-Rosetta Stone for granular offensive play, but their in-depth analysis, while excellent, isn’t for everyone. All in all, to appreciate Michigan’s or anyone’s offensive line play holistically, you need to watch the games.
Offensive line stats are uncommon, but they can be calculated simply. Offensive line stats are dominance. Think of Zak Zinter displacing two defenders on the same play against Penn State.
Offensive line stats are wins. Think of how Michigan won 25 games in a two-year stretch after not winning more than 10 games in a single season since 2011.
Despite having a limited quarterback in 2021, Jim Harbaugh and Michigan understood that an elite offensive line can easily cover up for a game-manager. Conversely, an elite quarterback will rarely be able to cover up for a limited offensive line.
The box score reflects dominance, but not to the true extent of how Michigan played. One of the biggest misconceptions was the Wolverines overwhelmed a “bad” rushing defense. But on the contrary, Ohio State’s rush defense was the best in the country in the month of October and held Kenneth Walker and 11-win Michigan State to 66 rushing yards the week prior.
No, this was a solid Ohio State front that was overmatched and overpowered. Michigan’s big uglies rocketed off the ball, while the Buckeye defenders appeared to fire off the ball as fast as vegetarian jumping in line at Fatburger.
The personification of Michigan’s dominance was truly seen in the fourth quarter. Michigan threw one pass in the final frame and only faced two third-downs (both of which weren’t even registered as attempts due to OSU committing penalties on both) while icing the game with 14 points.
This trend carried over to the 2022 season where Michigan won 13 straight games, including a second straight over Ohio State. In this iteration of “The Game,” the Buckeyes got the better of the Wolverines early, but it was again the persistence of the Michigan offensive line in the fourth quarter that iced the game by opening up holes for two 70+ yard touchdown runs.
If Michigan is going to win 15 straight games in 2023, it will be because of the names that don’t grab the headlines. It will be because of the fourth-quarter dominance displayed by the five guys up front.
To echo one of the many memorable Gus Johnson calls during the 2021 game, always be sure to remember the names up front, even if the box score doesn’t.