ANN ARBOR — Michigan center Cesar Ruiz could have been hit with charges of false advertising or providing misleading statements.
As the time was nearing midnight in the east Sept. 1, the Wolverines were 0-1 after a disheartening loss in their hyped matchup at Notre Dame. In the week leading up to the game, Ruiz proclaimed the offensive line would be a strength of the Michigan offense.
That wasn’t the case after allowing seven tackles for loss and three sacks to the Irish. As recently as one month ago, there were concerns about the line holding up against the meat of the schedule. Well, Michigan beat Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Penn State by a combined score of 101-27 and rushed for 762 yards and seven touchdowns.
As is turns out, Ruiz’s words were prophetic.
“I just had so much confidence,” he told reporters this week. "And I still do. There’s nothing that will change my mind. When I said that, I meant it, and it’s happening.”
The unit which has caused Michigan the most anguish in recent years might just be the best offensive line in the Big Ten. The Wolverines rank fourth in the conference with 217.9 rushing yards per game, and they’ve improved from 114th in the nation to 36th in sacks allowed and 101st to 32nd in tackles for loss allowed.
The protection — and transfer of Toledo native Shea Patterson — has translated into a quality passing game. Last season, Michigan’s quarterback merry-go-round completed 53.5 percent of its passes for 171.2 yards per game with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Thanks to Patterson’s efficiency, UM has a completion percentage of 65.9 for 200.6 yards per game with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions — and three regular-season games remain.
Running back Karan Higdon, who’s missed one game, is only 37 yards shy of 1,000 and he’s eclipsed 100 yards in seven consecutive games, currently the longest streak in the country.
“We weren’t quite where we needed to be [at Notre Dame],” first-year offensive line coach Ed Warinner said. “We just weren’t ready for that. We pushed them as hard as we could push them in August, and we’ve grown a lot since that first game.”
The addition of Warinner, who already was considered one of the best line coaches in America, infused confidence into a group that was swimming in details in years past. Michigan’s scheme became too complex under Tim Drevno, so Warinner simplified it and bet on his players to grasp the system once October and November rolled around.
The Wolverines’ progression has mirrored the 2012 Ohio State Buckeyes, which looked dreadful early in the season and finished 12-0. It, too, was Warinner’s first season coaching the line, a unit that had underperformed in the final years of the Jim Tressel era.
“Coach Warinner definitely brought a lot of confidence to the room,” tight end Zach Gentry said.
There’s been across the board improvement. Left guard Ben Bredeson, a three-year starter, is the team’s mainstay and most reliable figure on the line. Ruiz, a highly regarded four-star recruit, steadily is proving the hype was valid. Right guard Michael Onwenu and tackles Jon Runyan, Jr., and Juwann Bushell-Beatty have transformed from oft-criticized players into players who earn weekly plaudits.
“We really pride ourselves on the details,” Bredeson said. “It’s a big thing with coach Warinner. We talk about it every single week, the lack of penalties that we have. We’re doing a really great job with it. I’m really proud of that statistic.”
The line has been penalized only a handful of times all season. Meanwhile, Michigan has scored 20 rushing touchdowns.
“The way we worked hard in the winter, the way we worked hard in the summer, the coaching. Everything went into it,” Ruiz said. “The sky is the limit for us right now.”
Anyone who consumes college football knows undefeated seasons are endangered species. No team in the playoff era has won the national championship with an unblemished record. Florida State in 2013 was the last team to win the title with zero losses. In the past dozen years, there have only been three undefeated champions. Even Alabama, the sport’s resident superpower, has finished undefeated only once in Nick Saban’s tenure.
Warinner is well-versed in the variables of today’s college football. He was on OSU’s staff in 2014, when the Buckeyes lost to Virginia Tech — “we got crushed” — and went on to win the College Football Playoff.
“If you win the Big Ten, it’d be hard for them to keep you out of the playoff,” he said. “Our primary objective is to win the East, then win the Big Ten championship, and see what happens from there.”
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