There is no way to put it lightly — the Michigan Wolverines’ offensive line has held the team back from winning huge games over the last few years.
Run the clock out against Michigan State in 2015, and you have yourself a win.
Run the clock out against Iowa in 2016, and there’s another W.
Don’t let defenders break Wilton Speight and Brandon Peters in 2017, and you may have a shot at another win or two.
Whether it’s offensively or defensively, everything begins up front. Winning the battles in the trenches is huge. If you don’t have a good offensive or defensive front, odds are you don’t have a very good offense or defense.
Michigan has been elite defensively and mediocre offensively since Jim Harbaugh’s arrival, and most of those problems stem from the offensive line.
For the Wolverines, everything changed when Tim Drevno was let go this offseason. He, along with now Florida State offensive line coach Greg Frey, were tasked with working together to help get things going up front.
We all know how that worked out — Harbaugh didn’t renew Drevno’s contract and Frey went back to his alma mater.
Luckily for Harbaugh, offensive line coaching genius Ed Warinner was available.
Warinner was hired to be an offensive analyst, but was promoted once Frey and Drevno’s departures were official.
He coached the line at Minnesota last season — a line that gave up just 22 sacks, an average of 1.83 per game. That was good for fourth in the conference. To compare, Michigan’s offensive line gave up 36 sacks, an average of 2.77 per game, 11th in the Big Ten.
Fast forward to 2018 and under Warinner, the Wolverines have given up eight sacks for an average of 1.60 per game through five games.
Improvement. Not perfect, but the pass protection is drastically better than where it was a year ago.
Pro Football Focus also released its offensive line rankings through the first five games, and the Wolverines rank sixth out of 14.
Here is what they had to say about Michigan’s line:
“Michigan ranks second in the conference with a pass-blocking efficiency rating of 92.9, having allowed just 19 total pressures from 148 pass-blocking snaps so far this season. They have found much more success as pass-blockers than run-blockers in 2018, with guards Michael Onwenu and Ben Bredeson, and right tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty producing PFF pass-blocking grades of 80.0 or higher. Onwenu has been their best pass-blocker and has yet to allow a sack, hit or hurry this season. Their issue has been in the running game as just two starters hold a PFF run-blocking grade above 60.0, and their running backs see an average of just 2.4 yards before contact per carry.”
The analysis mentions how Onwenu has been Michigan’s best pass-blocker so far this year, and in Wednesday’s meeting with the media, it sounds like Warinner agrees.
“Mike’s grown a lot, his pass protection has really gotten better,” Warinner said. “Everybody inside the program has noticed that when he goes one-on-one with our best defensive guys, he’s solid. It’s been good there. Mike’s one of those guys whose (sic) improved a lot because of how he practices.”
The surprising issue with the line has been the run blocking. Despite that, Karan Higdon is still averaging nearly 120 rushing yards per game. However, a bulk of Higdon’s yards are coming after he has already been touched or hit by a defender. According to PFF and The Wolverine ($), 80 percent of Higdon’s 115 rushing yards against Northwestern came after contact.
This is simply astonishing as a reference to Higdon’s ability, but it’s also a detractor for the offensive line when grading is calculated. An offense would much rather have the running back burst through a gaping hole to pick up yards than gain a few yards and have to fight for more.
The offensive line, in a way, is wearing down the running backs by not giving them the open lanes to run through, and I am sure Higdon is tired as all hell by the end of the game because of the yardage picked up after initial contact.
This could become a huge issue with Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State on the horizon. It will be a lot harder for Higdon and the other running backs to break tackles against guys like T.J. Edwards and Joe Bachie, so the line will have to improve their run blocking before the gauntlet of the schedule comes, especially if Harbaugh insists on executing a run-first offense.
They’ve got one week to work out those kinks. Let’s hope it gets done.
But at the end of the day, the Michigan offensive line isn’t a glaring issue like it was a year ago. They aren’t without flaws, but the guys up front are constantly improving and beginning to gel as a unit.
Of course, sacks, quarterback hits and pressures will happen, and the run blocking must be worked on. But this group is getting better, and the future looks pretty good up front for the Wolverines.