Coming into the season, everyone knew what the limiting factor would be for Michigan football: pass blocking.
2017’s o-line finished 116th in sack rate, getting it’s QB sacked on 9.19 percent of drop-backs. The Wolverines ended up rotating three starting quarterbacks due to broken backs and concussions–the weakness was glaring, and this season’s o-line had to replace four-year starter Mason Cole.
A year later, and the tone regarding Michigan’s pass blocking has changed significantly:
“It starts with the individual play of the players,” coach Jim Harbaugh said at Monday’s press conference. “Each one of the starting offensive linemen are playing their best football.”
Elite pass blocking this season has always been out of the question, but if Michigan could merely get it up to average, a 10-win 2018 seemed reasonable. The Wolverines now sit at 54th in sack rate allowed, at 5.88 percent. In the last three games they’re 49th at 5.19 percent. Harbaugh highlighted the play of his red shirt senior right tackle:
“Juwann Bushell-Beatty, I thought he had his best game as a Wolverine. The way he sustains blocks and the way he finishes blocks, whether they’re frontside or backside. It was a real, real good game for him, also in tandem with (junior right guard) Mike Onwenu. Those two on the right side really had a heck of a ballgame. All five graded out at a winning level. The progression has been good for each of them individually.”
The Wolverines allowed three sacks in Saturday’s 38-13 rout of Wisconsin, but there’s no doubt the o-line’s overall turnaround has been instrumental in Michigan’s six-game winning streak. Michigan now has the 27th-ranked offense per S&P+.
“They’re getting better each day,” Harbaugh said about his offense. “They’re real good in terms of constant, continuous improvement. They’re very intense about the way they prepare. Better today than yesterday, better tomorrow than today.”
As you may have heard, the next challenge on the docket for Michigan’s o-line is Michigan State in East Lansing. The Spartan D is ranked 21st to S&P+.
“They have very good run defense,” Harbaugh said about his next opponent. “They’re very stout up front. They’ve got some real hard-playing guys. Their linebackers are some of the best in the league. Very sound system. They do a great job of adjusting. Very well-coached. There are a lot of variations to their scheme. Don’t see people really ever running open in the passing game. If there are holes to hit in the run-game they get closed, they get adjusted to quickly.”
The Spartans are ranked 82nd in sack rate at 5.26 percent, slightly better than Wisconsin’s 4.62 percent (93rd). Junior defensive end Kenny Willekes, a former walk-on, has four sacks for Michigan State and will present a challenge for Michigan’s o-line.
If the Wolverines win on Saturday, it will likely be due in part to the offensive tackles holding their own. If they lose, national title hopes will be wiped, and fingers will be pointed in a familiar direction.