Wolverines focus on eliminating small mistakes, improving run game

Sophomore Chris Evans and the rest of the running backs have been working on tightening up ball security.

Sophomore Chris Evans and the rest of the running backs have been working on tightening up ball security. Buy this photo
Amelia Cacchione/Daily
Tuesday, October 10, 2017 - 8:30pm

The atmosphere inside Al Glick Field House on Tuesday was noticeably different.

Just ask sophomore running back Chris Evans.

“Even the trainers were holding the Gatorade (bottles) tighter,” he said. “(Harbaugh) was yelling, too. It was tough, it was intense.”

Still smarting from a 14-10 loss to Michigan State on Saturday night, Michigan set out to correct issues in its run game. Against the Spartans, the Wolverines ran the ball 39 times for 102 yards, averaging just 2.6 yards per carry.

And just as they have all season long, Michigan’s offensive issues were compounded by a turnover — the first of five on the night.

With just under six minutes left in the first quarter, fifth-year senior running back Ty Isaac fumbled the ball as his team was driving near midfield.

It’s not often that one can point to a single play as directly changing the momentum. But Isaac’s lost fumble certainly gave a previously listless Michigan State team life.

Before the fumble, the Wolverines had rushed 13 times for 58 yards, including crucial fourth-and third-down conversions that allowed them to control the pace of the game.

After the turnover?

The numbers aren’t so pretty there — Michigan ran 26 times for just 44 yards.

So on Tuesday, practice for the skill position players included a twist — a longer and more intense version of their fumble circuit.

As Evans explained, the drill involves three stations and the running backs, tight ends, fullbacks and receivers. Each group practices picking up fumbles and holding the ball tightly while somebody punches at it. Players run a lap if anybody fumbles, and there was even a new rule instituted — if a player was loosely carrying the ball during a “practice period,” he would miss the rest of the period, which lasts around 10 minutes.

“We always did fumble circuit, but today there was a lot of heat in the air for some reason,” Evans said. “The coaches were yelling more, trying to strip the ball more.”

For Evans — who fumbled in Michigan’s 29-13 win over Air Force several weeks ago — protecting the ball is of the utmost importance.

“Ever since I fumbled, I haven’t really had it in my left hand,” he said. “I just keep it in my right … until I feel comfortable.”

Of course, the running backs are only one component of the run game. They can only find space if the offensive line opens up holes for them. And while the line hasn’t been doing any new drills, according to sophomore left guard Ben Bredeson, there has been an emphasis on re-establishing the rushing attack up front.

“I think (running the ball is) definitely an identity of Jim Harbaugh’s offense, and I think it has been for many years,” Bredeson said. “Just getting back to our roots. Just a lot of physicality this week against Indiana.”

Bredeson admitted that sloppiness from the offense has “definitely been a theme” so far this season. It hadn’t hurt the Wolverines in the loss column before. But things finally came to a boil against Michigan State — and now Michigan, whether it’s through holding the ball tighter or blocking better up front, hopes to shore things up.

“We’re just eliminating small mistakes — each one — one at a time,” Bredeson said. “I feel like everybody’s got issues that we have to clean up — both individually and collectively as an offensive unit. So that’s what this week is for, is we’re cleaning everything up and focusing on Indiana.”