Coaches and players will tell you the Michigan football team’s identity is still in flux.
But when you look at a box score from either of the Wolverines’ first two games, it tells a different story.
Through two weeks, Michigan has racked up an eye-popping 678 rushing yards. Running backs Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins have emerged as one of the best backfield duos across America, aided by the Wolverines’ veteran offensive line. Michigan has out-gained opponents by 509 yards on the ground, creating long drives that allow it to control the game. The Wolverines out-possessed Washington by nearly nine minutes in their primetime win last weekend.
“It’s an ideal start for this team,” running backs coach Mike Hart said Wednesday. “It’s what we needed. It’s good to come out and run the ball. Obviously, the backs are playing hard, but the O-line is doing a great job. I think that’s the most important thing. … These guys know who they are, they know what they want to do.”
Hart’s fingerprints are all over the Wolverines’ developing identity. The first-year running backs coach, who became Michigan’s all-time leading rusher in 2007, returned to Ann Arbor this offseason and made an immediate impact on Jim Harbaugh’s staff. The brand of football the Wolverines have showcased during their first two games is the same one Hart loves.
Hart grew up playing the football video game Madden, but not in the way most kids do. While users are often preoccupied with Four Verticals and other deep passes, Hart found success running the football early on. Then he’d run it again. And again.
It’s indicative of his own offensive philosophy.
“I’d run the ball all day,” Hart said. “It’s the only way to play. Dive, dive, dive. Third-and-1, run the ball. Do it again. I’m serious though, that’s how I play Madden.”
While Hart isn’t calling the Wolverines’ plays, it certainly seems like he shared his Madden playbook with offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. Michigan threw the ball just 32 times during its first two games, a number that pales in comparison to its 99 rush attempts.
The result is an identity centered around physical dominance. As most high-level college football programs move toward throw-first spread offenses, the Wolverines are finding success at the other end of the spectrum.
The run-first approach was on full display during Michigan’s first drive of the second half against the Huskies. Down 10-0, Washington knew it needed a stop. It knew it was getting exploited on the ground. It knew the Wolverines were going to keep running the ball until seeing reason to do anything else.
And yet, the Huskies still couldn’t stop it. Michigan opened the second half with an eight-play, 73-yard touchdown drive without ever throwing the ball. The eight consecutive run plays capture the Wolverines’ approach as a whole.
“We’re going to keep running the ball as much as we can and as well as we can,” senior offensive lineman Ryan Hayes said Saturday. “We’ll see if it works.”
That impact of such dominance extends beyond just the offense, too. It’s something the whole team can get behind.
“It’s really easy to play great defense when you’re not out there,” defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said Wednesday. “The 300-yard rushing games we’ll take every single time. Great job by our offense. … They played a great game and controlled the clock.”
It’s early in the season, but right now, that’s a representation of what Michigan hopes to sustain.
It’s almost as if Hart has the controller in his hands.