5 keys to victory: Michigan's offensive line just not playing well enough (with prediction)
ANN ARBOR -- Fitz Toussaint has been saddled all season with questions about his productivity.
But the offensive line has shared some of the blame. And lately, a lot of the blame.
Michigan's offensive line has not performed well heading into Saturday's game against Northwestern (noon, ESPN), seemingly regressing after making improvements earlier in the year.
The tackles have been strong, with Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield providing solid bookends for the unit. But the interior was a wreck against Minnesota.
Senior left guard Ricky Barnum was the worst offender, consistently getting beat or whiffing completely. He's culpable for two sacks and multiple lost-yardage plays by the running backs.
Center Elliott Mealer was only marginally better. Patrick Omameh was better, but still had issues.
"I think the biggest thing we have to do a better job of is finishing our blocks," offensive coordinator Al Borges said of his interior linemen. "We’re getting bodies on bodies for the most part -- and I’m talking more about the running game than anything else -- but getting through and winning that gap. We always talk about winning gaps. You’re responsible for knocking this guy out of that gap or moving him enough so that the back can read it -- we have to win that gap.
"We just have to do a better job of winning those gaps, getting those plays started, and giving our tailbacks a chance to go.”
It's easy to blame Toussaint for Michigan's tailback woes, considering he's averaging fewer than 50 yards per game after averaging 118.0 as the featured back last year. The ball is in his hands, so he takes the heat.
He insists nothing's changed in his running since last season, and that he feels good about where he's at. He doesn't feel like he's regressed.
While he has looked more tentative this year, including more lateral movements than last year, he may have somewhat of a point.
He simply doesn't have the holes he did last year, when David Molk anchored the middle, Schofield was at left guard and the undervalued Mark Huyge was at right tackle.
Molk and Huyge graduated, and little has been the same this year, especially up the middle.
Now the line must face a Northwestern defensive line that features defensive end Tyler Scott, the Big Ten's leading sacker (7.0). That's a good unit, and one that has helped the Wildcats rank fourth in the league in rush defense.
And Michigan needs to rush the ball well, with its quarterback position in flux.
Borges said the Wolverines will alternate Toussaint and backup Thomas Rawls, then go with the hot hand.
But neither is likely to get hot if the offensive line doesn't heat up first.
Four other keys to Saturday's game:
Solve quarterback riddle
It's not clear who will play quarterback for Michigan, and probably won't be right up until game time. The injured Denard Robinson warmed up against Minnesota, but his throws lacked pop and he clearly labored.
Brady Hoke said Robinson has improved this week, but remains day-to-day with an injured nerve in his throwing elbow. If he can't go, it'll be Devin Gardner, who played admirably in Robinson's stead against Minnesota.
Gardner's efforts also were aided by a poor Gophers defense, though, and was bailed out by perhaps the best performance of the season from the receivers. Not to take anything away from him, but his play wasn't quite as good as his numbers would indicate.
Getting Robinson back would be a major boon, because the offense still flows through him and it likely would enable Gardner to slide back to receiver, where he's a major upgrade over Jerald Robinson.
No matter who gets the call, he has to protect the football against a Northwestern team that possesses big-play potential.
Inside and in front
Hang around Schembechler Hall for 5 minutes, and you're bound to hear a Michigan defender say "keep the ball inside and in front." It's a worn-out phrase, but captures the essence of why the Wolverines have been so good at preventing the big play.
The Wolverines work to funnel the ball into the middle of the field, allowing more defenders to swarm the ball, and in front, which prevents the long play.
They've executed perfectly, allowing only 17 plays of 20-plus yards all season. That's second nationally.
They'll have to execute even better against Northwestern, which has 20 rushes of 20-plus yards this season, 10th nationally.
Contain Colter, Mark
Northwestern ranks third in the Big Ten in rushing largely because of what tailback Venric Mark and quarterback Kain Colter can do with the ball in their hands.
Mark is the Big Ten's second-leading rusher at 119.7 yards per game, and his average of 6.5 yards per carry trails only Denard Robinson. He's as fast as any tailback Michigan will see this year.
Colter has split time at various points with quarterback Trevor Siemian, with Colter considered the runner and Siemian the passer. But last week, it was all Colter, basically, and he took advantage by rushing for 166 yards and three touchdowns. He also completed 6-of-9 passes for 80 yards and another score.
Those are Northwestern's two best playmakers. Corral them, and Michigan is a heavy favorite. Let them break free, and this could be a game.
Northwestern has been in every game it has played this year, but the two it dropped came via fourth-quarter meltdowns.
It held a 28-17 lead heading into the final frame against Penn State before allowing 22 unanswered points, and held a 28-16 fourth-quarter lead against Nebraska before yielding 12 points in the final 6 minutes.
Michigan did the same to the Wildcats last year, falling behind 24-14 at halftime before scoring 28 unanswered second-half points.
Northwestern is a double-digit underdog, but has enough skill and big-play pop to give Michigan a game. That's especially true if the Wolverines have quarterback issues.
But Michigan seems to have ironed out some of its offensive woes, no matter who's at quarterback, and its defense remains one of the league's finest. Northwestern will score a couple big plays, but Michigan's overall skill and size carries it to a win. Michigan 31, Northwestern 24