Michigan's run game does what it's good at, and sees the payoff
Ed Warinner has two kinds of outside zone built into his run game.
One is, essentially, the base outside zone you see everywhere. Everyone shuffles in one direction and takes the man in front of them. The only difference is, there’s a fly sweep attached, to get the defense moving the other way.
The other, what he calls a man-scheme outside zone, is what other coaches call a pin-and-pull. He wants to create a wall by blocking down, let the play stretch, then let the runner explode through with the pullers creating a hole.
In 2018, as Michigan’s offense clicked into place throughout the season, these two runs helped form the basis of what the Wolverines did. In 2019, as things sputtered out over the first few weeks, Michigan seemed to not know what it wanted from its run game.
Eventually, the Wolverines decided on something simple: Do what they’re good at.
“That's what you try to figure out each year,” Warinner, Michigan’s offensive line coach, said last week, before the Wolverines lost at Penn State. “Every team's different. There's no carry over. You've got carry over players, but you have to establish who you are and what you want to do. And then you evaluate. At some point, you have to say, here's what we're good at.”
If there was any question as to what Michigan is good at before Saturday, there isn’t now. This was Warinner’s run game — outside and inside zones, pin-and-pulls and the rest — in full force, and it sprung the Wolverines for 303 yards on the ground and a 45-14 win over Notre Dame. They held a two-score lead before Shea Patterson even had a passing yard.
“I feel like when I pulled, it was able to open a lot of holes,” said junior center Cesar Ruiz. “Running backs were able to make some really good reads off of it. I feel like that’s one thing they weren't really expecting and I feel like that was really an advantage for us, to have them on the perimeter a little bit.”
“We’re bringing back some stuff that worked last year,” added senior guard Mike Onwenu. “Watching previous games and it’s important to bring that back and do what worked instead of trying everything else.”
Michigan has talked about establishing the run before, but had yet to do so in this fashion — in the rain, against a top-10 Notre Dame team that figured to be a real test. By midway through the first quarter, when redshirt freshman running back Hassan Haskins burst through the hole on an outside zone and galloped for 20 yards, hurdling a defender along the way, it was clear the Irish stood little chance.
Haskins ran for 149 yards, or just 68 off his career total before Saturday. Alongside him, Zach Charbonnet tied a school record with his eighth and ninth rushing touchdowns as a freshman. There are still four games left in the regular season. The run game, finally, seems to be hitting its stride.
“Made some creases and had some really crisp blocks,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “The backs were squeezing through them and breaking tackles. Hit a trap play early, that was big. Hit another couple inside runs, hit a couple outside runs. (Offensive coordinator) Josh (Gattis) did a nice job with the running game, inside then outside. RPOs started clicking.”
And in a first-half monsoon, against a top-10 opponent and a rival, Harbaugh’s team got out to a decisive lead in the kind of game the program has long coveted winning. By the time Tru Wilson ran 27 yards into the end zone in the fourth quarter for Michigan’s third rushing touchdown of the night, the competitive portion of the game had long ended.
It all harkened back to Warinner’s message, one so simple that Gattis and Michigan seemed to forget it until just a few weeks ago. Do what you’re good at.
On Saturday, that’s what Michigan did.