Michigan ground game dominates lesser competition again

Saturday, September 8, 2018 - 4:29pm

Senior running back Karan Higdon ran for 156 yards and a touchdown against Western Michigan on Saturday.

Senior running back Karan Higdon ran for 156 yards and a touchdown against Western Michigan on Saturday. Buy this photo
Alexis Rankin/Daily

It’s been a cycle for a while now.

The Michigan football team (1-1 overall) plays a good defense, like Michigan State, Wisconsin or Ohio State, and the Wolverines’ running game struggles.

Then Michigan faces off with a lesser opponent, like Minnesota, Indiana or Rutgers, and all of the wrongs are righted, as the Wolverines rip off big play after big play on the ground.

Saturday’s 49-3 win over Western Michigan was no different.

Senior running back Karan Higdon had more than 140 yards in the first quarter, the most from any Michigan player in one quarter since Denard Robinson in 2010. He finished with 156 yards and a touchdown.

Junior running back Chris Evans rushing for 86 yards and two touchdowns of his own.

When all was said and done, the Wolverines finished with 308 rushing yards with three touchdowns.

“The players, offensively, they’re just doing their skill, being confident in what they’re doing and executing it,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.

Added Evans: “There was holes you could drive a car through, and people in there with nobody to block, because everybody was blocked and taken care of.”

The performance comes one week after the Wolverines failed to get much going on the ground in their loss to No. 8 Notre Dame.

In that matchup, Higdon led the team with 72 yards on 21 carries, averaging 3.4 yards per carry. Evans, meanwhile, had just two carries for one yard. You can calculate that yards per carry yourself.

“It doesn’t just happen on gameday,” Higdon said. “It starts with the way we practice. (Running backs) coach Jay (Harbaugh) does a great job of making sure we bring high intensity each and every week. I’ve got a great teammate in Chris Evans who pushes me each and every day. I push him, and we expect nothing less from each other.

“So knowing that we have that 1-2 punch, it’s great for us working together alongside our o-line. I mean, we can’t expect nothing less than to come each and every day bringing pressure.”

Saturday’s game was at least a little reminiscent of Michigan’s dominating win over Minnesota last season, though not quite to that level.

Higdon and Evans combined for 391 yards and four touchdowns that night.

Evans says he and Higdon talk about replicating that production all the time.

“Me and Karan were talking about, ‘Let’s try to repeat history,’ ” Evans said. “Just talking, and we talk about that a lot, and just being able to go back to that time. And that day was just amazing for us both.”

The problem, of course, is that the Broncos and Golden Gophers are not the Fighting Irish or the Buckeyes.

It has been a while since the Wolverines have been able to accrue this kind of yardage in a game that really matters.

For that, there may not be a true solution, as this much-maligned offensive line has had its fair share of struggles in the past two seasons. Obviously, if you can’t block the good teams, then you can’t run against the good teams, and there likely isn’t going to be some massive personnel change that will fix everything.  

Instead, Michigan’s only real hope is steady improvement, so that by the time the big games come around, the car-sized holes remain, and Higdon and Evans can bust free.

“We’ve gotta look at the film, but we can never be satisfied with just checking all the boxes off,” Evans said. “There’s always something in there that we can always get better on. When we watch the film on Monday, then we’ll be able to see it then.”