Niyo: Wolverines walking a much-maligned line

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan running back Karan Higdon (22) averaged 3.4 yards per carry in the opener against Notre Dame.

Ann Arbor — They’re taking hits from every angle now. From the left and the right. Off the edge and up the gut. From outside the program — fans and media alike — and even from within, in a manner of speaking, as a former Michigan standout quickly became Public Enemy No. 1 over the weekend.

But the reality for Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines is that none of this is likely to change, the blitzing linebackers or the bleeping alums — and Braylon Edwards was merely the most public and pointed of those — until Michigan shows it can handle the pressure.

And quite frankly, that starts right where last season ended, with Harbaugh forced to be up front with his self-scouting and tackle some tough decisions internally, most notably with Michigan’s offensive line.

When opponents sense a weakness, they’re bound to attack it, and the book on the Wolverines these days is about as open as it gets: They still can’t protect themselves.

Shea Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey were pressured on nearly half of their combined 43 dropbacks in Saturday night's 24-17 loss in South Bend, and the Wolverines averaged barely 3 yards per carry on the ground, excluding sack yardage. And while it’s easy to simply point at the tackles and call them turnstiles, that would ignore the breakdowns across the board against a stout Notre Dame defense.

'It's not one guy'

Even a cursory review of the first-half lowlights Saturday against the Irish shows any number of culprits. Michigan’s first drive stalled when the interior of the line caved. The second when the stunts and simple twists that so mystified the Wolverines a year ago resurfaced and Patterson was sacked on a critical third-down play.

And it only got worse from there. A play-action pass inside the 5-yard line got blown up by pressure off both edges. A tight end couldn’t make a touchdown grab. Patterson’s first interception was a direct result of his running back and the center giving Notre Dame’s middle linebacker a hall pass. And his final play, which ended with a fumble that snuffed out Michigan’s plodding fourth-quarter comeback bid, was another example of Michigan’s line getting thrown for a loop.

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“But it’s not one guy, it’s not one unit,” tight end Sean McKeon said Monday. “It’s the offense as a whole. So we’re gonna look at what we did in the game, learn from our mistakes and, obviously, we’re gonna put it behind us.”

They don’t have any choice in the matter, really. But make no mistake, it’ll be weeks before they get another chance to correct this narrative that’s been written and annotated over time. All that talk about Michigan’s ugly road record, or Harbaugh’s inability to beat rivals, it’s not going away anytime soon.

The Wolverines will be heavy favorites to win their next two nonconference games before beginning Big Ten play with home games against Nebraska and Maryland sandwiched around a trip to Northwestern. Then comes the midseason gauntlet against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State. In theory, that buys Harbaugh some time to smooth over some of the rough edges in an offense that did show a few encouraging signs, mostly tied to Patterson’s play.

But time doesn't seem to be the problem here, amid all the recruiting misses and coaching messes and individual misfortunes that have plagued Michigan's line play in recent years.

Harbaugh made some tough calls after last season, and among them was a strong hire in veteran line coach Ed Warinner, whose track record speaks for itself.

'Still figuring stuff out'

But so does the play on the field, ultimately. And as defensive end Chase Winovich noted after the Notre Dame loss, “we're still figuring some stuff out on the offensive line.” Winovich went on to say he has confidence they'll do just that. His tag-team partner on defense — Rashan Gary — said much the same Monday.

“They’re better from last year,” Gary said. “They’re confident, and they know what they need to do. I don’t know what people out there are saying about them, but to me it’s a good, solid group. And if (people) don’t believe it now, they will believe it further down the road.”

As for what Harbaugh believes, we’ll have to wait and see. Asked to assess the line’s play Monday, he described it as “improved,” though that’s not saying much, comparatively speaking, given how atrocious the pass protection was last season.

Harbaugh also suggested he’s not planning any immediate changes with the starting lineup, adding, "I think the way we played this game is the way we'll play the next game.”

He meant that in terms of personnel, not performance. But one has to wonder about those supposed battles for the starting tackle jobs in camp. How big is the gap between Jon Runyan Jr. and Juwann Bushell-Beatty — a fourth-year junior and a fifth-year senior — and both redshirt freshman James Hudson and true freshman Jalen Mayfield? Ditto the gap between right guard Michael Onwenu and backup Stephen Spanellis?

Because there’s still a window here to figure it out if there’s any doubts from the coaches about what they saw in camp and what they got in the season opener. As McKeon reminded us Monday, “Game reps are a lot different than practice reps.”

They’d best make use of both the next few weeks, before the pressure reaches a boiling point.