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October 5, 2013It wasn't perfect, but after two consecutive disappointing performances from the offensive line in uncomfortably close wins over Akron and Connecticut, the unit made a solid step forward in Saturday's 42-13 win over Minnesota.
In the Wolverines' first four games, they surrendered a dismal 32 tackles for loss, including six sacks, failing to protect redshirt junior Devin Gardner or consistently open holes for fifth-year senior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint.
Michigan entered Saturday's game ranked ninth in the Big Ten in rushing offense (194.3 yards per game) and total offense (409.3 yards per game). Michigan coach Brady Hoke opened up the competition in practice, especially at the interior offensive line positions.
And that competition led to changes Saturday. Redshirt sophomore Graham Glasgow moved from left guard to center, and redshirt sophomore Chris Bryant made his first-career start, taking over at left guard. Redshirt sophomore center Jack Miller was left out of the lineup.
The Wolverines' may not have racked up eye-popping numbers in the box score, finishing with 348 total yards: 113 on the ground (including a team-high 78 yards from Toussaint) and 235 through the air. But Minnesota's grind-out-the-clock style allowed Michigan to run just 52 plays all afternoon. After averaging just 4.0 yards per play against Connecticut, Michigan averaged 6.7 yards per snap against the Golden Gophers.
"We moved the line of scrimmage today," fifth-year senior left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "I think we did a lot of good things today, but there is always room for improvement. Fitz needs to have at least 100 yards in every game, in my opinion. He deserves that. He has worked so hard. We owe him some yards, especially after the last few games.
"It was good. It was definitely better than it has been. I'm excited about our potential, but potential is a very hard word, because it means you haven't done anything yet."
Bryant, who missed all of last season because of a fractured tibia, was close to cracking the starting lineup in fall camp. But issues with his knee and shoulder held him back.
Bryant is finally healthy - and played well in his first start. He was responsible for the one sack, whiffing on a block in the middle, but also showed some serious promise, especially in the rushing game.
"I will have a better sense after looking at the tape, but I imagine he swung and missed some, and he probably road-graded some guys," Hoke said. "Somewhere in between."
Glasgow battled with Miller through the spring and summer for the nod at starting center, but ended up starting the first four games of the year at left guard.
"Graham has actually always graded out better as a center than he has at guard," Lewan said. Having a little more control, a little more responsibility keeps him really focused on the game. Graham, from what I could tell, had a good game today."
Glasgow and Bryant weren't the only ones mixing it up along the offensive line.
The Wolverines experimented with an unbalanced set that flipped Lewan over to the right side. In the formation, Lewan would line up where, traditionally, a tight end would be, on the right side of fifth-year senior right tackle Michael Schofield. The tight end would line up in the left tackle spot.
"We've done that since fall camp, just another way to get a heavy body over there, guys who are pretty good blockers," Hoke said. "We'll probably do more of it."
The offense was in the formation on Toussaint's 12-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
"It's a little something to put me at the point of attack," Lewan said. "It was [offensive coordinator Al] Borges' call. It gives me and Schofield an opportunity to play next to each other, which was fun. It was really interesting. I've never been in a right-handed stance before. That felt uncomfortable, but I had the opportunity to get that on my resume. It was nice."
There were plenty of positives to take away from the victory, especially offensively, but the Wolverines know they're not done yet.
"That's the thing about football: you can be happy, but you can never be satisfied. If you don't get better every single week, you're not going to win a Big Ten Championship. If we go 5-7, then I'm not going to be very happy. This team has a lot of good things ahead of us if we keep doing what we have to do."