The Michigan football team was without its starting running back in its win over SMU. After getting banged up in practice, senior Karan Higdon missed Saturday’s game with an undisclosed injury.
The status of Higdon, as well as junior running back Chris Evans, is not yet clear. Evans limped off the field following a 35-yard scamper in the fourth quarter and didn’t return.
“Karan was a game-time decision, just didn’t feel like he could go,” said coach Jim Harbaugh in his postgame press conference. “And then Chris, we’ll see what his situation is exactly. It is like a strain or a cramp. We’ll see (about next week).”
The Wolverines missed Higdon’s down-hill style in short-yardage situations, instead relying on the shiftier Evans and junior Tru Wilson. Both finished with respectable numbers — Evans had 18 carries for 85 yards while Wilson gained 53 yards on 11 rushes — but not without moments of ineffectiveness.
Michigan had seven runs of one yard or less and averaged just 2.8 yards-per-carry in the first half. The running game’s inefficiency prevented the Wolverines’ offense to find the the end zone more than twice in the first half against a defense that had allowed 88 points through two weeks.
The series of small ground pickups were reminiscent of the Wolverines’ season-opening loss at Notre Dame. Out-manned by a dominant front-seven, Michigan rushed 33 times for just 58 yards. But a 308-yard, two-touchdown effort last week against Western Michigan quieted concerns about the Wolverines’ run game.
That was until Saturday’s first half.
Higdon’s absence undoubtedly made a difference. There’s a reason he’s Michigan’s first-string back. But to find the true culprit behind the tempered running game, look no further than the Wolverines’ offensive line. Sounds familiar, right?
It’s the same five starters that were maligned for their pass protection in Week 1. Though junior quarterback Shea Patterson hasn’t been pressured as consistently since, Michigan’s front is still lapse-prone in run blocking. Let’s roll the film.
The situation: 3rd-and-1 on Michigan’s first drive
Higdon’s absence was first detrimental on the game’s third play from scrimmage. Needing just a yard to move the chains, the Wolverines line up I-formation and hand off to Evans. It’s simple, Jim Harbaugh power football.
Only power football doesn’t work without blocking — nothing does.
Moving off the left side of the formation, redshirt junior tight end Zach Gentry whiffed on his primary target at the second level. Junior right guard Michael Onwenu and sophomore fullback Ben Mason, meanwhile, can’t seal the defensive end, forcing Evans to cut inside. That’s where Gentry’s assignment, linebacker Trevor Denbow, had already come through, dropping the Michigan ball-carrier for a loss.
Whether or not Hidgon would’ve gotten the first down is besides the point. Gentry, Mason and Onwenu all missed or over-ran blocks.
Sometimes, the problem is not limited to offensive linemen.
The situation: 2-and-1, scoreless in the 1st quarter
Another short-yard situation with similar results. Here, the Wolverines’ interior line falls apart. Onwenu and junior left guard Ben Bredeson generate zero push off the snap, and once the SMU’s linebackers meet the pile, sophomore center Cesar Ruiz falls over.
This was never going to be a big play for Michigan. The Mustangs have too many heads in the box, as they’re anticipating an inside run in the redzone.
But after a strong performance last week, Bredeson, Owenu and Ruiz struggled to create space against a mediocre defensive line. It’s one thing to get beat by Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery — a top-end NFL defensive tackle prospect. It’s another to struggle against a defense that’s now 0-3.
The situation: 1st-and-15, Michigan up 15 in the 4th quarter
This is example of the Wolverines’ play-calling working to perfection.
After gaining 11 yards on an Ambry Thomas jet sweep in the first half, Michigan sent sophomore Nico Collins in motion across the formation. This attracts the attention of two SMU linebackers, who are caught motionless or moving left when Evans gets the handoff.
Simultaneously, Onwenu sealed his block and both Bredeson and senior left tackle Jon Runyan Jr. get the second level, and Evans was off to the races.
That jet sweep action won’t work every time. But if the Wolverines can find other ways to make defenses hesitate, expect more big runs like this despite Michigan’s share of blocking blunders.