Why the Offensive Line is Key for Michigan Against MSU

ed warinner michigan offensive line coach

Why the Offensive Line is Key for Michigan Against MSU

Football

Why the Offensive Line is Key for Michigan Against MSU

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It’s going to be a battle on Saturday, and the Paul Bunyan Trophy notwithstanding, the trenches when Michigan is on offense vs. the Michigan State front seven is going to be something to behold.

The Wolverines enter the matchup with the nation’s 28th-best rushing attack, led by Karan Higdon, the country’s 9th-best running back statistically through seven games. But MSU will have something to say about that, as the Spartans boast college football’s best run defense.

Taking a step back, however, in years previous, this would be an absolute mismatch for the maize and blue. In 2017, arguably the worst unit for the Wolverines was the offensive line. But, with new offensive line coach Ed Warinner coming to town this offseason, that’s changed in a hurry.

Against Wisconsin a week ago, a team that’s known for its fierce line play, the Wolverines wore them down, and got 320 yards on the ground — the most against a ranked opponent since 2000.

Warinner says the difference that he can see since arriving is how his unit treats the week leading up to the game. It’s the old adage: practice is so difficult that the game is a relief.

Maybe that’s some hyperbole, but that, in a way, is what Warinner is seeing.

“The number one thing is just how they prepare,” Warinner said. “And because they’re preparing well with focus, with great practices, with physicality in practice, that’s showing up on Saturday. So, every week, they continue to do that, and every week, they continue to get better. So I really like that about them.

“I would just say each one of them have improved in areas they’ve needed to improve in. But, collectively, like yesterday, when we practiced, I’m standing there and I like how it looks. I like how it feels. I like how it sounds. And when that happens, then I know good things are headed in our direction. So we’re starting to do things like that. Just that consistency of the level of where we want them to play at. They’re doing it during the week, so then in the games, the games are easier because they’re practicing like they’re preparing.”

Back to Michigan State — the team that rushes for more yards tends to be the one that wins the game. But, it’s a tough task for this offensive line to open up holes against a front seven that doesn’t like to see open gaps.

Warinner spoke about the challenge his line will be facing on Saturday and what makes MSU so solid up front.

“They have a very solid run defense,” Warinner said. “They have a good defensive staff, very good defensive coaches. They’re well-coached. They understand their defense very well, they understand the adjustments they need to make in that defense if you’re attacking them like this. They have answers that they get to quickly. And they haven’t steered away from that defense, so they have banked reps, cumulative knowledge of it, so you have to be really good at what you’re doing. Because they’re going to play physical, they’re going to play technique. They’re going to make good adjustments, and you have to match that with the same thing: great physical play, great technique, and you have to make your adjustments and do your things and try to stay ahead of them.”

Still, this isn’t 2013 or 2014, and former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is coaching at Pitt, last we checked. That means the double-A gap blitz won’t be deployed with the fierceness it was when the Spartans’ defense was among the most formidable in the nation.

But, if it were, perhaps Warinner would be the guy to stop it.

Warinner was on Ohio State’s staff in 2013 and 2014. OSU split those games, losing in 2013 in the Big Ten Championship, but taking down the Spartans en route to a College Football Playoff championship the following year.

One common component: Ohio State was able to run the ball.

Behind Ohio State’s impressive offensive line, Carlos Hyde rushed for 118 yards in 2013, and Braxton Miller added 142 with 2 touchdowns in that Big Ten Championship loss. The offensive line gave up just 2 sacks in that game.

The next year, during the regular season, it was more of the same, starting with Ezekiel Elliott’s 154 yards rushing with 2 touchdowns. Quarterback J.T. Barrett added another 86 to Ohio State’s 268 yards.

Likewise, the Buckeyes only gave up 2 sacks.

That was against a Michigan State team that lived in the Michigan backfield those years — 7 sacks in 2013, though with just 2 in 2014. This Spartans team is averaging 2 sacks per game.

But Michigan went from allowing 3 a year ago to 1.5 in 2018 — which is 43rd in the nation. Part of the reason for the success is that Warinner has returned the Wolverines to zone concepts — after Michigan did a mix of power and zone a year ago.

Warinner explains why he likes going with zone over power and how it keeps defenses from teeing off like MSU did to the Wolverines a few short years ago.

“I’m a zone guy – I grew up in zone concepts,” Warinner said. “Zone concepts block all defenses. I mean, you get multiple looks from people. So zones are really good against all different looks and all different blitzes. So you have to have a certain assortment of those in your pocket.”

And while there’s all kinds of stats and analytics that tell us what these two teams are that will face off on Saturday, Warinner says that you can forget about all that.

With it being a rivalry game, it doesn’t come down to scheme. It doesn’t come down to talent rankings. It comes down to who wins their matchups, one-on-one, and ultimately who wants it more.

For his offensive line, given how it’s performed past Week One, Warinner hopes that his player respond by giving Michigan a decided advantage up front. After all, the team that wins this game up front offensively should be the one to win the rights to the Paul Bunyan Trophy.

“In rivalry games, it’s just about the will to win and competing every snap and finishing,” Warinner said. “Because these games come down to the fourth quarter, and they come down to a play here or a play there. A stop here, a third down conversion – whatever. A goal line stand. A lot of that is about how you’re trained and are you mentally and physically physical and tough enough to fight your way through those situations and win them.

“Because it’s gonna come down to players are gonna win this game. It’s not gonna be the coaches win this game. The players are gonna win – the guys who jog out onto the field and play are gonna win the game, and it’s gonna be matchups and it’s gonna be one-on-one battles and it’s gonna be situational football and who gets the job done better in those situations – will come out ahead.

“You better be strapped up to win the Paul Bunyan, yeah.”

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