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Lost and Found: Michigan discovers its offensive identity

Wolverines’ run game blossoms into strength of offense

  • Minnesota-Michigan-Football-17

    Michigan running back Chris Evans (12) rushes, avoiding a tackle from Minnesota defensive back Jacob Huff (2), in the second quarter of Saturday's game in Ann Arbor, Mich.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • Minnesota-Michigan-Football-16

    Michigan running back Karan Higdon (22) rushes ahead of Minnesota defensive back Adekunle Ayinde (4) in the first quarter of Saturday's game in Ann Arbor, Mich.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

ANN ARBOR — The search party can be called home.

Michigan’s offensive identity, which went missing after last season, has been found. It was never more clear than on a gloomy Saturday night in the Big House when the Wolverines rowed down a soggy field with little resistance.

In clobbering Minnesota by a score of 33-10, Michigan piled up 371 rushing yards and touchdown runs of 60, 67, and 77 yards. For good measure, Karan Higdon and Chris Evans both topped 100 yards. It was the second consecutive game UM’s had two running backs rush for 100 yards, the first time that’s happened since the Ford Administration.

“Those guys got tremendous push up front,” said Higdon, who had a career-high tying 200 yards and two touchdowns. “As Mason [Cole] said, he got us into the second level, and we knew from there we had to do our thing and what we do best — make people miss.”

The run game and offense as a whole was so efficient that Michigan only recorded 14 first downs, a remarkably low number considering it had 427 yards of offense. The Wolverines had three touchdown drives of four or fewer plays.

The outburst came one week after Michigan’s best offensive performance of the season while coinciding with Brandon Peters occupying the top spot on the quarterback depth chart. After a lethargic uncertainty, the Indiana game featured a turning point.

In the past four games, Michigan’s established a powerful run game, operating the offense through an improved offensive line. It’s rushed for 1,079 yards and 13 touchdowns during that span, averaging 6.2 yards per carry.

“Power and counter and isolation and toss, they were working good,” Harbaugh said. “Getting better and better. Probably when that started happening was when a guy by the name of Jack Harbaugh said, ‘Why aren’t you running the counter more?’ So we started running the counter more. The old ball coach: Jack Avon Harbaugh.”

Credit an assembly line of Earthmovers on the offensive line: Cole, Ben Bredeson, Patrick Kugler, Michael Onwenu, Juwann Bushell-Beatty, Jon Runyan Jr., Stephen Spanellis, Cesar Ruiz, and Nolan Ulizio. Fullbacks Khalid Hill, Henry Poggi, and Ben Mason have also met defenders head-on.

“Numbers don't really lie,” Poggi said. “I think we’re really well-coached up front. Our schemes are really good. We feel like at the moment we can block anyone. The guys are really tough.”

Throughout the first half of the season, Michigan’s offense lacked any semblance of chemistry or cohesion. As the coaches tried to piece together an inexperienced unit, the run game became a distant thought. The Wolverines abandoned the gap-based running style that’s become a hallmark of Harbaugh-coached teams.

Out with the new and in with the old. Michigan has shoved aside nonsensical formations for what’s been the team’s bread and butter and been effective. The latest evidence was overwhelming for the jury: 200 yards for Higdon, 191 yards for Evans.

“That’s the best feeling in the world,” Evans said. “Just seeing everybody happy for you, proud of you. We’ve been waiting for a long time this season for this to come.”

The Big Ten championship remains a longshot at best, and this season will not end with Michigan being a nationally elite program. It can act as a springboard, though. Confidence is a coveted potion in sports.

When you combine one of the nation’s best defenses with a suddenly proficient offense, gloom quickly turns to optimism.

“It’s just gotten a little bit better, the precision,” Harbaugh said. “I think the backs are doing a good job of making the blocks right. That was my impression of watching the tape last week and [Saturday]. The way they’re seeing things and cutting and making the blocks right, it’s impressive.”

Contact Kyle Rowland at krowland@theblade.com, 419-724-6110 or on Twitter @KyleRowland.

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