It’s a common football ideal: Establish the run and the rest of the offense will follow.
Through an 8-1 start, the Michigan football team has displayed a litany of offensive formations, plays and wrinkles. But coach Jim Harbaugh’s general approach has remained simple.
He has followed a run-heavy paradigm with stick-to-itiveness — in an era of air-raid, quick-strike offenses nonetheless. Numerous blowouts have inflated the statistic, but the Wolverines average roughly 43 rushing attempts per game — second in the Big Ten behind only Wisconsin.
Even against a defensive line as talented as Penn State’s, which Harbaugh said was the best his team had played all season, Michigan kept pounding the ball on the ground. It worked.
The Wolverines rushed for three touchdowns and 259 yards, which was nearly twice the average number the Nittany Lions had allowed heading into Saturday’s drubbing. Senior running back Karan Higdon collected his seventh straight game with more than 100 yards rushing, needing only one more century-mark effort to tie Mike Hart’s school record.
And as the adage goes, when you’re running the ball that well, other opportunities will appear.
Here’s a look at how Michigan took advantage of its effective running game elsewhere. Let’s roll the tape.
The Wolverines wasted no time asserting their will up front. They started their first possession with eight consecutive runs en route to an eight-play, 76-yard scoring drive.
This play was Michigan’s first chunk run of the afternoon, and it displays the furthering complexity of the Wolverines’ blocking schemes. Junior left guard Ben Bredeson and sophomore center Cesar Ruiz — the team’s most athletic interior lineman — both pull to seal the left edge. Simultaneously, redshirt junior tackle Jon Runyan Jr. and junior tight end Sean McKeon execute successful down blocks, opening a sizable hole for Higdon.
Hidgon ripped off a 50-yard run on the next play before the Wolverines inched their way down to the one-yard line.
That caused Harbaugh to bring out a three-tight end set with sophomore fullback Ben Mason serving as the lone tailback. Now think about how you would prepare if you were the Nittany Lions.
The Wolverines had just rushed inside — successfully — seven consecutive times. With a heavy set just feet from the goal line, the natural indication is to stack the box for a stuff.
That is what the Nittany Lions try to do, but Michigan has a trick up its sleeve: the read-option. Shea Patterson sees defensive end Shaka Toney collapse to try to make the play on Mason, and the junior quarterback keeps it for a walk-in score.
It’s a play that Michigan has gone to more often in recent games. Teams know the Wolverines are a strong inside rushing team. So does Patterson.
Against Michigan State two weeks ago, Patterson made the same decision with Mason in the backfield during a critical 4th-and-2 in the fourth quarter. It was successful then as it was Saturday.
As simple as it is, Patterson’s legs force defenses to be responsible for an extra man. With so many bodies needed to counter Michigan’s already-complex sets, that can be a difficult task.
Saturday, Patterson had his busiest day on the ground since his freshman season at Ole Miss with 11 attempts for 42 yards. That probably would not have been the case, however, without the interior running dominance Michigan established early.
Here’s another look set up by the Wolverines’ previous inside rushing efforts. It’s a classic run-pass option play.
Patterson signals a handoff to Higdon and sees linebacker Jan Johnson creeping forward. On a slant, redshirt junior tight end Zach Gentry finds the soft space between Johnson and another defender, and Patterson sees it. Easy money.
Consecutive inside runs — like the eight Michigan ran on its first drive — may be a little boring to watch. But they create results for Michigan that are anything but.