The anchor of the Michigan Wolverines’ offensive line this season has to be Jalen Mayfield. After opting-back into the season, Mayfield became the only returning player on the offensive line and is now an instrumental part of protecting first-year starter Joe Milton.
In 2019, Mayfield allowed only one sack and added just three penalties on the season. He faced some of the best edge rushers in college football like Chase Young, A.J. Epenesa, Yetur Gross-Matos while thriving in the role. His success led to some media outlets projecting Mayfield to be a first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
The junior opened up the season against an average (at best) pass rush from the Minnesota Golden Gophers with young, raw talents like Boye Mafe and Esezi Otomewo on the roster. In Saturday’s matchup, Mayfield allowed just one quarterback hurry and a pressure as Milton was sacked only once in the ball game.
Keeping Milton upright and free of pressure will be pivotal in his development in year one. The first-year starter completed all 15 of his passes in the win over the Gophers in a clean pocket. He was pressured just three times an was 0-1, and when blitzed, he was 3-5 with 28 yards through the air.
Expect Michigan State to bring a bunch of pressure to try and make Milton feel uncomfortable in the pocket because one area where the Michigan State Spartans never seem to lack talent is in their pass rush. The past few seasons they have brought guys like Kenny Willikes, Shilique Calhoun, and William Ghoulston to the table. Now the torch is passed to Jacub Panasiuk who PFF listed as one of their preseason first-team All-Big Ten honorees, ahead of Kwity Paye who was on the second-team.
Panasiuk finished last season with a 90.0 pass-rush grade which was the fourth-highest in the Big Ten and the 15th best overall. Panasiuk has a career 9 sacks, 23 quarterback hits, and 25 hurries with three forced fumbles to boot in his 2019 campaign.
The senior lined up on the left side of the defensive line on all 52 snaps he saw last week. When the NFL draft comes along, this will be a matchup that will be watched closely by scouts, and it is one that Mayfield is going to want to handle well if he wants to maintain his current draft stock.
One way the Michigan offensive lineman can do that is by dominating in the run game. Panasiuk has a history of being a highly talented pass rusher but struggling to contain outside runs. If Week 1 is any indication of how the Wolverines want to move the football on the ground, Panasiuk should be targeted heavily. He finished with a 56.6 grade by PFF last season ranking well below the average of Big Ten defensive lineman. Essentially, he is a non-factor and that is something that Jim Harbaugh and Josh Gattis should exploit based on the impressive run-blocking fans saw from the line in their 225-yard performance on the ground against Minnesota.
Mayfield is the more talented player and is expected to win in the running game, but Panasiuk is a threat to disrupt some pass plays if not kept in check. Keeping Panasiuk a non-factor will ensure the dominance that fans and the media anticipate in Saturday’s matchup.