With the Michigan football team’s 2017 regular season in the books, the Daily looks back at the performance of each unit this year and looks ahead to the future in 2018. In this edition: running backs.
Throughout the year, running backs coach Jay Harbaugh was adamant that the Wolverines would roll with the hot hand.
He sure wasn’t lying.
Sophomore Chris Evans opened the year as Michigan’s starter against Florida. One game later, fifth-year senior Ty Isaac was in for the first snap against Cincinnati. His time as a starter was short-lived too. Isaac got the nod again against Air Force, but junior Karan Higdon took the job against Purdue and didn’t look back.
All the way, though, Michigan wasn’t afraid to split up carries. Harbaugh praised the unit for handling what can be a selfish position very unselfishly. And he wasn’t wrong, as each back had their days.
Isaac shined early on — highlighted by a 133-yard outing against Cincinnati — but was bitten by the injury bug. A nagging injury limited him against Michigan State, and he was forced to miss matchups against Minnesota, Maryland and Ohio State.
Evans, despite losing the starting job and dropping as low as third on the depth chart, recovered to notch 50 carries over the last four games — six more than Higdon. With a 191-yard outing against Minnesota and three two-touchdown performances, the Wolverine faithful can rest assured there was no regression in Evans’ game.
Last, and certainly not least, Higdon was the star of the Wolverines’ backfield. He finished tied for third in the Big Ten with 11 rushing touchdowns, and led Michigan with 929 yards on 147 carries.
All in all, especially given some of the offensive line troubles, Michigan’s backfield was generally a bright spot among what fans may regard as a bleak season.
HIGH POINT: It almost goes without saying that a matchup with Minnesota on Nov. 4 was the highlight for Michigan’s backfield.
Higdon ran for 200 yards and two touchdowns. Evans wasn’t far behind — rushing for 191 yards and reaching the end zone twice. Three of those touchdowns came on runs of 60-plus yards.
It was Higdon’s second 200-yard outing of the year — the first came at Indiana — and was a major breakout performance for Evans, who received a larger share of the carries while Isaac was sidelined with an injury.
If the duo’s performance wasn’t impressive enough, Michigan came just nine yards shy of boasting two 200-yard rushers for the first time in program history.
The outburst came in redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peter’s first start. And boy, the running back rotation ensured he wouldn’t need to do much.
LOW POINT: When the lights got brighter, Michigan’s backfield left something to be desired.
The Wolverines mustered just 2.6 yards per carry against Michigan State, though Higdon’s 5.4 per carry was a lone bright spot. His 200-yard outing against Indiana was sandwiched between the next disappointment, when Michigan traveled to Happy Valley and averaged 2.5 yards per carry.
Then came another peak against the likes of Rutgers, Minnesota and Maryland.
Then came another deep valley.
Against the then-fifth-ranked Badgers, the Wolverines finished with just 58 yards and averaged 1.6 yards on 37 carries.
THE FUTURE: The future, quite simply, looks bright.
Losing Isaac hurts, but Higdon and Evans — Michigan’s top two rushers — looked plenty capable of handling the running back responsibilities down the stretch.
The matchup against the Buckeyes stands out in particular, as Evans and Higdon averaged 6.1 and 5.0 yards per carry, respectively. It especially came as an encouraging sign only one week after the Badgers held the duo to just 45 yards.
Redshirt sophomore Kareem Walker will be a welcome addition to the trio, as he flashed promising performances in his limited role this year. Injuries and an already crowded backfield kept Walker from significant time this year, but he drew praise from Jim Harbaugh in his limited action.
And if the three can strike a balance once again, Harbaugh will have another healthy ground game to work with.