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Notebook: Rawls returns to field, defense embraces heightened responsibility

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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By Ben Estes, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 3, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS — The Michigan offense has waited and waited for redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint to become the player he was just last year, when he ran all over the Big Ten in the second half of the season. As Toussaint’s struggles have dragged on, the cries for more playing time for his backup, sophomore Thomas Rawls, have only intensified.

After two weeks without a carry, Rawls finally saw the field in a significant way against Minnesota. It was the most action of his young career, in fact. Rawls’s 16 carries were a career high, just nine fewer than he had received all season going into Saturday’s game.

The Wolverines were also without their quarterback on Saturday afternoon. Minus Denard Robinson, they were lacking the one player who’s managed to pose a consistent and explosive threat on the ground this season.

That meant that the team would have to rely on its running backs more than ever for ground production — it’s telling, then, that Michigan coach Brady Hoke chose that situation to reinsert Rawls into the rotation, in the most prominent role he’s enjoyed in his two seasons.

“To be honest with you, we planned on doing it a little more a week ago and we didn’t for one reason or another,” Hoke said. “We wanted to get him involved in the I-back stuff and under center. He kind of suits it when you put it that way. I didn’t see every play because I talk with the defense sometimes, but I know one thing, he’s going to run downhill and he’s going to run hard.”

That he did. Rawls didn’t set the world on fire by any means, gaining just 43 yards against the Golden Gophers for a yards-per-carry average of 2.7.

But he did things that Toussaint hasn’t done this season as much as the coaches would like. Rawls wasn’t as hesitant to pick a hole as Toussaint has been, wasting little time in going north instead of east or west.

In turn, that allowed Rawls to turn would-be losses into no-gains, or one- or two-yard gains into three- or four-yard bursts — a small difference, perhaps, but a difference nonetheless, and a difference that Toussaint hasn’t made consistently.

Toussaint, for his part, looked better than he has in past weeks, and the 41-yard touchdown run he broke out for in the fourth quarter was his longest of the season. Still, the redshirt junior didn’t do much besides that one big play — he averaged just 2.8 yards per carry with the 41-yarder taken out.

With the Wolverines still searching for answers from their running backs, Hoke left open the possibility that Rawls’s playing time would continue to increase, pointing to the improvements he’s made in pass protection and route running.

“He may (play more),” Hoke said. “The one thing, you’ve got to earn it every day in every practice. That’s the competitive nature of what we do.”

It’s clear that Michigan needs more output from the position — if Saturday is any indication, Hoke is losing patience in relying on Toussaint to do it himself.

DEFENSE SOLID: Hoke and his players weren’t happy with the defense’s performance, but they’re never happy — in reality, the unit did its job in holding Minnesota to 275 total yards and 13 points.

It was a particularly key performance because of the circumstances on the other side of the ball. If the loss to Nebraska was any indication, the offense could very well have struggled to put up points without Robinson leading the attack.

Junior Devin Gardner eventually put those concerns to rest with his effort, but before the game, the defense knew its margin for error was potentially razor-thin.

“We obviously knew that (Robinson) was hurting, and we had talked that we needed to step it up,” said fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs. “Injuries happen, and the other side of the ball has to step up when that happens.”

Kovacs and company, too, found themselves with even more difficulties early on in the game.

A combination of the offense’s inability to move the ball and uncharacteristically poor punting by junior Will Hagerup gave the Gophers excellent field position for several of their drives. They didn’t have far to go to threaten to put points up. In response, the Wolverines just bowed their backs even more.

“Our motto is spot the ball,” Kovacs said. “Give us a place to stand and we’ll make the most of it.”

WICKED WIDEOUTS: Michigan’s wide receivers haven’t been the most consistent bunch this season.


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