When you have 174 plays that result in no gain or negative yards, something is terribly wrong with your offense, and for the University of Michigan, that issue was the offensive line.
Despite having two future 2014 NFL draftees anchoring the tackle positions in Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, it seemed as if nothing the Wolverines tried worked in 2013. They shuffled in a number of guys on the offensive line that included the highly-touted recruits like Kyle Kalis to walk-on players like Graham Glasgow, but it still did not matter. The Wolverines could not run the ball nor could they stop someone from teeing off on their quarterback as they allowed Devin Gardner to be sacked 36 times.
The first step in rectifying the issue was firing offensive coordinator Al Borgess and hiring Doug Nussmeier, formerly of the Alabama Crimson Tide. That title on his resume was significant because not only had Alabama sent running back Eddie Lacy to the NFL under his watch, but also multiple offensive linemen including Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker and Cyrus Kouandijo as well — but for many UM fans, the question early on was could he replicate that success for Michigan or was he just a product of a powerful Alabama system.
Even after simplifying the plays and responsibilities for the offensive linemen and the running backs, it seemed during spring and fall practice that the Wolverine players just could not get it together. Days before the season opener against Appalachian St., there was still uncertainty over who was going to be starting at running back and a couple of the line positions.
But on Saturday afternoon, the Wolverines sent out a unit that consisted of sophomore Ben Braden at right tackle, senior Joey Burzinsky at right guard, junior Jack Miller at center, sophomore Erik Magnuson at left guard and the surprise true freshman Mason Cole at left tackle. To the surprise of many Wolverine fans and its detractors, the unit played well as Gardner was only sacked once on his way to passing for 173 yards and three touchdowns on 12-of-13 attempts in the 52-14 victory over the Mountaineers to start the season 1-0.
But the most important number of the day was 350; that was the total number of rushing yards accumulated by six Wolverine runners. Leading the charge was the sophomore duo of Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith, who contributed 285 of that total. In running for 170 yards on 15 carries, Green came within 100 yards of eclipsing his total season rushing output in 2013. Early in the contest, it seemed as if it was the same Green from last year as he struggled to read running lanes and when there was an opening, he was unable to break free for significant yardage. He was momentarily replaced by Smith, who better utilized the holes created by the jelling offensive line and seemed to be running tougher on his way to rushing for 115 yards on eight carries.
But on the third drive of the second quarter, something clicked for Green as a 59-yard run by the sophomore seemed to be the catalyst for not only his best day as a Wolverine, but a number of big run plays from the position. Smith would subsequently run for 61 yards on his next carry — and in the second half, Green added to the number of long plays by scampering for 62 yards to set up another Michigan score.
On the day, Wolverines backs had 10 plays of 10-plus yards or more — surprisingly, none of them coming from last season’s leading rusher, Gardner. And while no one will mistake Appalachian State for having a top rushing defense, seeing Michigan have success on the ground throughout the day has to build confidence for a team that couldn’t run the ball with consistency against anyone last season.