ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Since Jim Harbaugh took over the Michigan football program, his teams have taken on the same identity: an elite defense and a ball control offense.
In terms of total defense, the Wolverines have ranked fourth, first, third and first in Harbaugh's first four seasons. But Michigan still hasn't knocked off Ohio State and gotten over the hump.
That's because offensively, Harbaugh's teams haven't quite put it all together. Michigan ranked outside the top 50 in yards per play the first three seasons under Harbaugh, including a disastrous 2017 in which the offense finished 101st at 5.18 yards per play.
This year's team is much improved, though, ranking 35th nationally and fifth in the Big Ten at 6.18 yards per play.
Quarterback Shea Patterson and workhorse running back Karan Higdon got most of the credit, and deservedly so, but the group that saw the most improvement was the offensive line.
This year's improvement
Harbaugh's hiring of Ed Warinner to take over Michigan's offensive line was one of the best offseason coaching moves in the country. In 2017, the Wolverines allowed 36 sacks in 13 games, tied for 114th in the nation. Only seven Power Five teams were worse than Michigan at protecting the quarterback, and only Illinois ranked lower in the Big Ten.
Michigan also struggled to run the football consistently, even though that was the identity of the offense. In 2017, Michigan averaged 4.37 yards per rush, which was 61st in the nation. It was only slightly better in 2016 and even worse in 2015.
In reality, the Wolverines had gone 10 years without a strong offensive line. Warinner's job was to buck that trend.
His group got off to a rough start at Notre Dame, allowing three sacks, seven tackles for loss and six quarterback hurries. Michigan looked primed for another frustrating offensive season.
But over the next several weeks, the line improved dramatically -- and it's no coincidence the team ripped off 10 consecutive wins.
Western Michigan got just two sacks and one quarterback hurry the following week, and the next four teams -- SMU, Nebraska, Northwestern and Maryland -- combined for just three sacks and five quarterback hurries.
Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State, Rutgers and Indiana struggled to get to Patterson, as none registered more than two sacks. Ohio State's loaded defensive line registered three sacks and two quarterback hurries.
The end result was a line that allowed just 18 sacks in 12 games, 25th in the country and half of last season's total.
The Wolverines also rushed for 4.96 yards per carry, 29th in the nation and the program's best average since 2011.
Next season should be an opportunity for Michigan to build on its success along the offensive line because it appears four starters will be back.
Cesar Ruiz is only a sophomore, and Ben Bredeson, Jon Runyan and Michael Onwenu have another year of eligibility remaining. Bredeson was considered a possible NFL draft prospect, but he has said he plans to return for his senior season.
Runyan was named the first-team All-Big Ten left tackle after starting the season as a major question mark. Bredeson made the All-Big Ten Second Team, while Ruiz and Onwenu were on the All-Big Ten Third Team.
With those four players returning, Michigan's line will have continuity and an opportunity to improve further under Warinner's tutelage.
Michigan will have to replace Juwann Bushell-Beatty at right tackle. The All-Big Ten honorable mention had a solid season as a fifth-year senior.
There are plenty of young options to take over at right tackle, including 2018 four-star tackle Jalen Mayfield, who was the talk of the offensive line during fall camp. Andrew Stueber also held his own filling in for Bushell-Beatty late in the season, and 2017 four-star Chuck Filiaga is still working to get into the rotation.
Coming into 2018, Michigan had three or four major question marks along the offensive line. Next September, the Wolverines will likely feel very good about four of the starting spots.
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