Once again, Michigan's running game goes in the wrong direction

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By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 9, 2013

Somehow, after all the lost yardage, the sacks, the runs up the middle into walls of defenders —followed by more runs into more walls of defenders — the Michigan football team still had a chance to win the game against Nebraska on Saturday. And at the start of the fourth quarter, Nebraska handed the Wolverines one hell of a chance.

With the game tied, 10-10, Nebraska return man Jordan Westerkamp muffed a punt, which bounced right into the arms of sophomore wide receiver Dennis Norfleet. Norfleet cruised into the end zone, but it was for naught — the kicking team cannot advance a muffed punt. Still, Michigan gained 50 yards on the play, double its next-longest play of the game. Now, just 26 yards separated the Wolverines from the end zone.

But it might as well have been a mile. Michigan’s first two plays of the drive, rushes from freshman running back Derrick Green, were swarmed by defenders. The two plays lost a yard, and now Michigan faced a situation that has become all too familiar: 3rd and long.

Redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner could only muster a four-yard scramble. The Michigan Stadium crowd booed loudly. The field-goal attempt by fifth-year senior Brendan Gibbons squeaked off the right upright and in.

Michigan led, but by three instead of seven. Once again, negative plays tanked Michigan in a key situation. The Huskers would win the game on the next drive.

The good news for the Wolverines in their 17-13 loss to Nebraska is that they improved on their record-setting negative 48 rushing yards from last weekend. The bad news is that all 112,204 fans in attendance had zero rushing yards, still more than Michigan for the second week in a row.

And those in attendance knew it. After Michigan’s first first down, with 2:45 remaining in the first quarter, the stadium erupted in sarcastic cheering. For the second straight week, the Wolverines were running backward more often than not. They finished with negative 21 rushing yards this time. And once again, Michigan couldn’t find an offensive rhythm.

“The negative plays are what kill you on third down,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke.

Michigan ran the ball 36 times (including sacks, which count as a rushing attempt in the statistics). Of those 36, five went for no gain. Eight lost yards. Seven were sacks. In all, more than half of Michigan’s attempts on the ground went backward, or at least failed to go forward.

This wasn’t three yards and a cloud of dust, because Michigan rarely even advanced the ball that far on the ground. The ball carrier picked up at least three yards on just 22 percent of the team’s rushes. More often than not, the cloud of dust was behind the line of scrimmage.

Not surprisingly, Michigan went just 3-of-15 on third down. That’s probably because Michigan’s average distance was 3rd and nine. For the second week in a row, the coaching staff was left searching for answers for a rushing game that has combined for negative 69 yards in the past two weeks.

“Well that’s hard to explain, isn’t it?” Hoke said. He then repeated a line he used often in his post-game press conference. “I’ve got to do a better job coaching those guys.”

Running was futile. Fittingly, the game started where Michigan had left off against Michigan State: with a rush up the middle to fifth-year senior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint for a loss of one.

Toussaint finished with six yards on nine carries. Green had 11 yards on eight. The longest rush of the day was seven yards.

Gardner threw for 196 yards and a touchdown, without any turnovers, but passing was also a gamble. Gardner was sacked on 20 percent of his drop backs, seven times in all for the second week in a row.

He was sacked twice on his second drive, setting up 4th and 30. He was sacked on fourth down in the second quarter. A third-down sack of Gardner set up the punt that Westerkamp would muff. And another sack on third down on Michigan’s last possession helped end the game.

“I think maybe a few plays I did hold onto it a little long,” Gardner said.

In all, Michigan failed to gain any yardage on slightly less than half of its plays.

Norfleet, the would-be hero, lingered on the bench after the game. As time expired, his teammates quickly made for the tunnel. But Norfleet stayed for a moment, alone on the bench.

He had the game’s momentum-changing play in his grasp, but the rules prevented him from scoring. Instead, the game was in the hands of the Michigan offense — in this case, the running game specifically. And in this game, again, that meant it was more likely to go the wrong way.