Powers, counters help Michigan knockout Minnesota as running game finds groove

Junior running back Karan Higdon headlined Michigan's rushing attack with a game-high 200 yards.

Junior running back Karan Higdon headlined Michigan's rushing attack with a game-high 200 yards. Buy this photo
Emma Richter/Daily
Sunday, November 5, 2017 - 1:04am

Football doesn’t need to be calculus. 

It can be as simple as rock, paper, scissors. Saturday night, it didn’t matter that Michigan was missing its starting right guard, its second-string running back or its best blocking tight end. It didn’t matter that the Wolverines hardly alternated their play-calls. 

Michigan kept throwing rock — and promptly bludgeoned Minnesota into submission.

“I felt like maybe we were playing on our heels and didn’t hit them in the mouth first,” said Minnesota linebacker Blake Cashman. “If we would have done that, who knows what would have happened.”

Just last week, the Wolverines churned out 334 yards on 51 carries against Rutgers. That was a season high. It took just under three quarters against the Golden Gophers to smash that number. With sacks removed, Michigan finished with 34 carries for 394 yards and four touchdowns. Karan Higdon toted the ball 16 times for 200 yards, finding the end zone twice. His teammate, Chris Evans, tacked on 13 carries for 191 yards and two scores of his own.

It was the type of performance one might have expected from a vintage Jim Harbaugh team during his Stanford years, and proof that Michigan’s offense continues to take a step in the right direction.

“Yeah, (the run game has) just gotten a little bit better and better,” said Jim Harbaugh after the game. “Good precision there. I think the backs are doing a really good job of making the blocks right. That was my impression watching the tape last week and tonight. 

“The way they’re seeing things and cutting and making the blocks right, it’s impressive, and they’ve been breaking out.”

In contrast to whatever Michigan was running earlier this season — an ineffective potpourri of gap-blocking and inside zone schemes — the Wolverines have found what they’re good at.

Powers and counters: as simple as bread and butter, and just as crowd-pleasingly effective. 

“I mean, we’re just running what works, I think,” said sophomore tight end Sean McKeon. “We got some zone plays in there too besides the powers and counters, but that’s what’s working for us right now, out of two tight ends and a fullback, so I think that’s what we’re going to stick with.”

Earlier in the season, Jack Harbaugh asked his son why he wasn’t running the counter more. The question from the former coach clearly worked. The play has been a staple of Michigan’s offense since the Indiana game, and it was the call on Higdon’s 77-yard touchdown in the first quarter Saturday — a play that featured picture-perfect execution.

Minnesota’s linebackers were clearly thrown off by the misdirection. Left guard Ben Bredeson pulled, blasting a defensive end. Fullback Khalid Hill followed into the breach, lowering his head into a linebacker. Higdon saw daylight, turned on the jets and did the rest.

There were times when the backs made something out of nothing, too. Midway through the second quarter, the Wolverines ran power after three consecutive counters that gained one, 12 and 18 yards. 

It looked like Evans would be tackled after a three or four-yard gain. But he shrugged one tackle, stiff-armed another and outran the rest for a 60-yard touchdown. 

“They were really good, and they broke a lot of tackles,” Cashman said. “I think that’s what ultimately hurt us, we couldn’t execute on tackling.”

On that play, Evans made his offensive line look good. On many others, they helped him and Higdon look good. That’s what a finely-tuned rushing attack looks like — both groups working in tandem to run the ball down the opponent’s throat, picking up the slack when needed. And while McKeon said he feels like the run game has been his team’s bread and butter “for a while now,” Michigan certainly hasn’t put back-to-back performances together like that in a long, long time. 

1975, in fact, was the last time the Wolverines had two running backs with over 100 rushing yards each in consecutive games.

“You got to give a lot of credit,” said Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck. “They were efficient.”

Of course, Michigan doesn’t have Andrew Luck under center. But Minnesota — and Rutgers — knew that too, and still couldn’t stop what was coming. And, as Michigan’s starting tight end brought up, there was no need to throw when his team was averaging 10 yards and a cloud of dust. 

“If you’re running the ball like that,” McKeon said, “why would you do anything else?”