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RUN THE DAMN BALL

Whether it’s wearing the phrase on shirts ahead of the College Football Playoff, spoken by Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh or simply left unsaid, the Wolverines’ core philosophy has stood since, at least, last season. The No. 3 Michigan football team’s offense — its whole team — relies on the run game to work. 

It’s how the Wolverines win.

So what happens when it doesn’t work? Well, you get Saturday’s 19-17 eked-out win over unranked Illinois. 

The struggles began when junior running back Blake Corum — Michigan’s ultimate, and perhaps only, weapon — injured his left leg in the second quarter. On an outside run down the sideline, Corum was brought down, a tackle which simultaneously pulled his leg, banged his knee and caused him to fumble in the red zone. Corum limped into the tunnel, and the Wolverines were without their saving grace.

“We were obviously scared for him,” junior defensive lineman Kris Jenkins said Saturday. “We were nervous. We all wanted to make sure he was okay.”

After the game, Harbaugh sustained that, while holding him out of the game, Corum’s injury wasn’t necessarily as harrowing as it seemed — rather “bothering” him.

“(He) got cleared to go back in, and we’ll see where it is tomorrow, how it feels tomorrow,” Harbaugh said. “(It’s) structurally good, which is great news.”

But with the game at just 7-3 in favor of Michigan, the Wolverines had to figure out how to succeed without their tried-and-true method — and do so quickly. After the game, sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy boasted of his confidence in Michigan given the situation.

“It’s just about adapting, adjusting. I got trust in 143 guys, and they’re gonna do the best of their ability and get it done in any way they can,” McCarthy said. “We just had to go a different route, and we had to trust different guys, and we were totally okay with that.”

The results on the field begged to differ.

After Corum exited, the remaining running backs combined for 15 carries and 42 yards, good for just 2.8 yards per carry. In juxtaposition, when Corum returned for one rush in the second half in what seemed like a recovery that superseded medical possibility — just before exiting the game once more, this time for good — he accumulated five yards.

McCarthy and his passing game didn’t step into the spotlight either, going a modest 18-for-34 with 208 yards and missing on could-have-been game-winners left and right. 

Without Corum, the Wolverines were lost at sea.

After the game, though, Harbaugh sailed straight ahead, paying no heed to the obvious waves crashing around him.

“(Freshman running back) CJ Stokes, I thought he was on the verge of breaking, so proud of him,” Harbaugh said. “I thought he … had some really good runs, some crucial first downs. … Really happy with CJ and (sophomore running back Tavierre Dunlap) and (junior running back) Isaiah Gash…

“So many guys, so many others. A locker room of heroes.”

In reality, without Corum, nobody looked like a hero.

Because the same as Harbaugh’s words endorsed the fill-in running backs, the stat sheet indicted them. And equally guilty was Michigan’s offensive line.

The former Joe Moore Award-winning line, the same one that had embraced the “RUN THE DAMN BALL” philosophy, failed to do just that. Against the seventh-ranked Illini rush defense, the Wolverines lost in the trenches — badly.

Harbaugh will chalk that up to Illinois’ gameplan:

“It became apparent they were going to just line up in and either all out blitz us or cover one, smother cover one, and dedicate themselves to stopping the run game.”

But that excuse only goes so far.

It’s the same as what happened in the final game of the Wolverines’ season last year — a blowout ushered by Georgia’s suffocating defensive line that dominated the trenches — only on a lesser scale. The Illini are not the Bulldogs, and Michigan escaped with a two-point win.

The Wolverines live and die by the run. Saturday, they did just enough to maintain their pulse.