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Toussaint and Robinson could both pass 1,000 yard mark against stout Buckeye defense

Marissa McClain/Daily
Redshirt sophomore running back Fitzgerald Toussaint is 109 yards away from 1,000 rushing yards on the season. Buy this photo

By Tim Rohan, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 23, 2011

Everyone knows about the Michigan football team’s seven-game losing streak in The Game. The Wolverines have pressure to break it; the Buckeyes are expected to extend it.

The streak is the elephant in the room, no matter what color you wear.

But the rushing numbers in those games are startling enough to make Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes blush. Ohio State has more than dominated on the ground — running for 1,480 yards compared to 621 yards — collecting nearly 2.5 times the yards the Wolverines have run for.

Do you think Michigan coach Brady Hoke knows The Game is won and lost on the ground?

“Always,” Hoke said. “Always — how you play up front on both sides of the ball. I told the kids, and they get tired of listening to me about it, but it’s like that in every game.”

It took eight weeks for Hoke to find his lead running back — redshirt sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint, who has since flourished in Hoke’s pro-style, downhill running offense. The 6-foot, 200-pound back, ran for 558 yards in the next five games, carrying the ball more each week.

The decision looked brilliant when Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges decided to go with Toussaint coming out of the bye week against Purdue. But Borges revealed Tuesday that there wasn’t much science behind why they chose Toussaint over junior running back Vincent Smith, or sophomore Stephen Hopkins.

“No one had surfaced,” Borges said. “Fitz had shown some flashes of being a really good back, but he had not really been consistent enough to say, ‘Okay, it’s you.’

“We just said, ‘Let’s keep him in there, let him play, and see what happens.’ And he got stronger as the game went on, and like so many backs, like I’ve been pounding the table for since I got here, he’s that guy that I think can tote the ball 20 times and get over 100 yards. And it’s just helped us so much. I can’t even tell you. It makes such a difference.”

Michigan can control the clock, keep its defense refreshed and the pressure off Denard Robinson's fragile 190-pound frame, all by placing the offense in the hands of Toussaint and its veteran offensive line.

In the past two weeks, in particular, Hoke has liked how his line has played, bullying the Illinois and Nebraska offensive lines. Each game, Hoke went to the ground to ice the game and, like clockwork, Toussaint chipped away until he broke free — breaking multiple tackles each time — for a long touchdown run.

If he continues his upward trend, Toussaint could reach 1,000 yards rushing yards against Ohio State. He’s 109 yards away, and Robinson is nine yards away.

It’s that kind of balance Borges craved when he said during spring practice that he’d love to find a lead tailback.

“We don’t want Denard to run the ball every play,” Borges said. “He’s not going to make it through the season doing that. … Fitz surfaced, and now he’s flirting with 1,000 yards. I think that’s awesome because it takes pressure off Denard.

“The goal is to go out there and take care of that football, rush the football, have some balance, don’t depend on one player all the time.”

The last time Michigan had two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season, the year was 1975 and Schembechler was struggling against Ohio State, with a 2-3-1 record.

Both Gordon Bell (124) and Rob Lytle (104) ran for 100-plus yards against the Buckeyes that year, but Michigan lost the game.

Toussaint and Robinson will face what Borges called “as good a defensive football team, if not the best, that (he’s) seen.”

History says the Buckeyes should be able to stop the run, but they’ve had mixed results this season, allowing 130 yards per game. They were able to bottle up Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell and Wisconsin’s Montee Ball, holding those two to reasonable totals.

But Nesbraska’s two-headed monster of Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead combined for 221 yards. And Penn State’s stable of backs also topped 200 yards.

But Michigan hasn’t lost respect for the nation’s 17th-ranked defense.

“They possess a package that can pressure you, they can back off and rush four and still get some pressure there,” Borges said. “They’re stout against the run. They play with their hands real well. This team is real, defensively.”

Up front, Michigan will have to move the talented John Simon and 335-pound Johnathan Hankins — two defensive linemen who have combined for 22.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks this season.

Robinson remembered how fast the Buckeyes defense was, defensive linemen included.

“If you see how active they are,” Hoke said. “Hankins is the second leading tackler on their team, and he plays nose tackle. That’s a guy making plays. Simon, I love watching him. We followed them so much with (similar) opponents that it’s been fun watching their defense and how hard they play.

“They play as a group. I think they will be in my opinion the stiffest test we’ve had.”