Michigan has a lot of the pieces it takes to be a legitimate national contender. Offensive line improvement will play a huge part in whether the Wolverines have what it takes to make it to the four-team playoff.
U-M might need a solid game from the guys up front just to win comfortably against Michigan State. This group has struggled against most of the defenses on the schedule to date, though as one study shows, it was better than many felt against Purdue. Left tackle Mason Cole, left guard Ben Bredeson and center Pat Kugler all graded in the 90s, while right guard Mike Onwenu and right tackle Nolan Ulizio were in the 80s.
Still, there’s no denying there’s room for improvement. Michigan is tied for 118th nationally in tackles for loss allowed per game (8.0) and 109th in sacks allowed out of 129 teams.
The Wolverines are still undefeated and have won every game by two-plus scores, so they’re doing enough right (like Penn State, which is No. 4 nationally but No. 115 in tackles for loss allowed) to compensate. That won’t be the case against the better teams on the schedule, however.
“I know we struggled as a whole line, tight ends and backs in pass-pro this week, so we’re trying to clean that up,” redshirt junior Jon Runyan, platooning at right guard, said. “Specific blitzes Purdue was bringing) in a 28-10 Michigan win) in the run game, we had some trouble picking up, but that’s exactly what this improvement week is for.”
MSU is known for its double A gap blitzes and linebackers running downhill at the snap, so that’s something the Wolverines needed to shore up. The backs were bad in pass protection, too, so the failures weren’t limited to the offensive line.
All positions were challenged during the bye week, Runyan noted.
"Everybody is competing for the job every week no matter what," Runyan said last week. "Nothing is set in stone, so you've got to go out there and prove yourself in practice every week."
He’s one who is getting another look at right guard, platooning with Onwenu. He made four mistakes on his 27 snaps, he reported, but he was also in on two long touchdown drives. He’s U-M’s most athletic lineman and has remained ready despite losing the starting job to Onwenu.
“It was decent," Runyan said. "It's awesome to be in there and get some real reps in a Big Ten game. It just feels good to be out there playing with everyone."
"I wouldn't say I was discouraged [by not starting]. If anything, that helped me. I've just got to play harder. Got to keep going … got to keep pushing."
Both Runyan and Onwenu continue to make strides, fifth-year senior center Kugler said.
"We know Jon and Mike are both very capable," senior center Patrick Kugler said. "I think Mike's a big boy, so sometimes he needs some rest. Jon we know going in there is more than capable, and he'll get the job done … there’s no drop-off when Jon’s in or when Mike’s in. They’re both very talented. No, doesn’t faze us as at all.”
They’re always encouraging each other, reporting what’s going on in the heat of battle, Runyan said. That will continue no matter who plays.
“Throughout camp it was a heated process moving everyone around and seeing who the best five people were on the left and right side, mixing people up, kicking Ben out to tackle sometimes,” Runyan said. “We’re still not sure. If anything happens we want some decent backups in there.
“I think we’ve got that now. We’ve got a good core of five, six, seven players who can go in there and play at any time, so that’s really helpful.”
Now it’s time for all of them to elevate their game one more step.
The season could depend on it.
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