- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan's Brady Hoke is a coach who focuses so intently on the lines, who calls himself a defensive line coach at heart. Yet so far in his second season with the Wolverines, his prized position hasn't been coming together.
Having problems against Alabama, the nation's top-ranked team, is one thing. Against Air Force, where the Wolverines had a height advantage, weight advantage and skill advantage, is clearly another.
Michigan escaped against Air Force with a 31-25 victory on Saturday on a day when, much like against the Crimson Tide, the lines were dominated. The Michigan rushing game, which featured two 1,000-yard runners from a season ago, faltered whenever Denard Robinson didn't run the ball.
All of it leads to one thing: cause for concern. As Michigan moves through its season, its opponents will be bigger, potentially tougher and more skilled than Air Force. The Wolverines have to improve in order to have a chance to meet their goals.
Instead, Michigan displayed a running game that, save for Robinson's 218 yards rushing, had seven yards on eight carries. It is a defensive front seven that was gashed and slashed all over the place by Air Force's wishbone offense, allowing 290 yards on the ground. That's with Michigan knowing exactly what the Falcons would do, too.
"Our non-Denard running game, I guess that's what we'll call it from now on, it wasn't productive enough," Hoke said. "Therefore I don't think we played well enough up front. Defensively, we gave up 290-something yards rushing, you didn't play well enough up front."
Michigan's bonus here is that it is still early in the season. When Hoke says his team is a "work in progress," that is legitimate. After all, the Wolverines' defense had similar concerns a season ago after two games, when it was slashed and gashed by Notre Dame. And the Wolverines will not see an offense like this the rest of the season, save potentially for a little bit of option against Nebraska and Northwestern, but not like this.
However, the difference between last season's defense and this one's is the relative lack of experience in the front seven. Michigan doesn't have defensive line anchors such as Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen to rely on. Instead, it has a crew of young players (Ondre Pipkins, Mario Ojemudia, Keith Heitzman) and inexperienced ones (Quinton Washington, Will Campbell) to go with one experienced player in Craig Roh.
Michigan is playing freshmen everywhere in that front seven on defense -- freshman Joe Bolden replaced fifth-year senior Kenny Demens at linebacker a lot in the second half -- so the learning curve will be steeper as the opponents grow tougher.
"Do I think we played our best ball today? No, not at all," senior safety Jordan Kovacs said. "Did we play better than Week 1? Probably. A lot of that goes to some of the younger guys that are playing and even some of the older guys like myself.
"I'm going to make strides each week, and I think if we all do that, we're going to be all right."
On the other side of the ball, Michigan's running game -- minus Robinson -- is a major worry. Against the Crimson Tide, the Wolverines running backs gaining 42 yards is understandable. Putting up seven yards against Air Force is not.
The offensive line was able to block well enough for Robinson, who returned to his all-too-typical ways against Air Force, including going from his nickname, 'Shoelace,' to shoeless during a 58-yard touchdown run in the third quarter to give Michigan a 21-10 lead. He ran the last 40-plus yards in a left shoe and right sock.
But Fitzgerald Toussaint couldn't do anything.
"I don't think he ever got a chance to get started," Hoke said. "We didn't block well enough."
This comes after left tackle Taylor Lewan called Michigan's rushing production against Alabama "almost embarrassing." It wasn't much better this week.
Lewan knows it. He isn't sure why his line has struggled against opponents literally big in stature (Alabama) and small (Air Force).
"Seven yards for the running back is awful," Lewan said. "Denard was good, and there's always room for improvement, especially on the offensive line. We have to do a better job re-establishing the line of scrimmage.
"It's going to be tough for this team to be successful if we can't do it as an offensive line."
Brady Hoke has always stressed the importance of the linemen. For Michigan to have a good season, as Lewan said, the Wolverines have to figure it out. On offense and on defense.
If Michigan wants to compete for the Big Ten championship and in the Big Ten in general this season, it will have little choice.
11hMichael C. Wright