Run game shows improvement against Rutgers

Sunday, November 22, 2020 - 2:05am

.

Allison Engkvist/Daily

After back-to-back games of fewer than 50 rushing yards and a first half of 17 yards against Rutgers — yes, Rutgers — Michigan’s four top running backs came together and put their collective foot down.

The yards we put up is unacceptable,” junior running back Hassan Haskins remembered the conversation going at halftime. “We gotta do our job and try our best to get as many yards. Every inch, like I said, every yard.”

The Wolverines put up 99 rushing yards on 16 carries in the second half and 32 on 12 across three overtimes. Haskins became Michigan’s first 100-yard rusher all season. Those aren’t eye-popping numbers by any means, but for a team whose run game has struggled mightily, it’s a start.

Several factors hurt the run game. Injuries to both starting tackles left a young and inexperienced offensive line. Inconsistent quarterback play constantly forced the Wolverines into passing downs. Playing from behind meant setting up the run wasn’t advantageous.

But Saturday, the change started with Haskins. Though Haskins has led Michigan running backs in rushing yards three of its previous four games, he failed to get 100 yards or more than eight carries. In the 48-42, triple overtime win against Rutgers, he ran for 110 yards on 22 carries with one touchdown.

“I kinda knew a little bit (that I was gonna get more carries),” Haskins said. “I was getting a little bit more carries in practice and stuff like that. … Any carries I'm good with, so 22, it was a blessing.”

The difference in the run game began to show late in the second quarter, when sophomore Cade McNamara came in for junior Joe Milton at quarterback. McNamara’s performance was much improved from Milton’s, adding more variety to the offense. Haskins, whose value as a running back comes from his ability to plow through defenders and get yardage after contact, showcased those skills, taking advantage of even small holes created by the offensive line.

“The amount of runs that Hassan had that were yards after contact in this game, tough, efficient, outstanding runs, just tremendous,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I thought there was some really good play on the line, there was just some time in the game where the line was coming off the ball in a way that they hadn’t up until this point. There was a switch that really flipped.”

Of course, the run game is still a work in progress. Michigan totaled just 148 rushing yards, a low total for a team that preaches the importance of establishing the run. And the game situations against the Scarlet Knights weren’t really better for running; the Wolverines ran seven plays on third-and-long, the same amount they ran against Wisconsin last week.

Yes, Michigan came away with the win. There isn’t much good about almost losing to Rutgers, though. If the Wolverines hope to crawl out of the mess they’re in, they need to take the few positive developments from this game and build on them.

The running game could be one of those areas of growth. With McNamara now presumably at the helm, it may well help boost the running backs, too. And with Haskins allowed to work more freely, he showed the same skill that boosted him to the co-starting job last year. 

“We just gotta put our foot on the pedal,” Haskins said. “We ain’t stopping here.”

If Haskins and Michigan want anything resembling an acceptable run game, they’d better not.