Even when he wanted to forget about it, Karan Higdon couldn’t avoid seeing his holding penalty from Saturday’s 20-17 win at Northwestern.
“(I’ve seen it) a couple times, I had no choice,” Higdon said. “A lot of people sent it to me. It’s one of those things that — I can’t say it happens — I have no explanation for it. … I don’t know how that happens.”
The senior running back was faked a handoff up the middle, getting swallowed at the line of scrimmage by a Wildcat player while Shea Patterson scrambled to the left for a 20-yard pickup. While Higdon was sent to the ground, so was the yellow penalty flag, calling back Patterson’s run and stymying a potential comeback drive in the fourth quarter.
The call was a blemish on an otherwise hard-nosed contest that primarily featured Higdon. With junior running back Chris Evans — who Higdon calls his “partner in crime” — again sidelined due to an injury, Higdon was the Michigan football team’s bellcow. He toted the ball 30 times for 115 yards and two touchdowns — one of which gave the Wolverines their first lead with 4:06 left in the game. It’s no wonder that on the fake handoff, Northwestern swarmed him.
Higdon’s 30 attempts are hardly eye-popping; it’s only tied for the 55th-most rushing attempts in Michigan history. It’s not even the most he’s had as a running back — he tallied 35 rushes in his freshman year of high school. But in a pivotal, “prove it” year in the Jim Harbaugh era, the workhorse role given to Higdon in Evans’ absence is emblematic of just how much trust the coaches and players have in him to fulfill that role.
“He’s a very valuable player in the backfield,” said redshirt sophomore tight end Nick Eubanks. “I have no doubt in mind that he’ll run the ball, break tackles. He always has the urge to get the extra yardage off breaking tackles. I’m glad to have a dude back there like that.”
And as Higdon stood before the media on Monday afternoon, the wear and tear from Saturday’s game was non-existent. He has a trusted post-game and rehab routine — contrast bath therapy, a massage and repeat.
After all, Higdon has seen similar work before. The senior popped off for a previous high of 25 carries in a dominant 200-yard, three-touchdown performance against Indiana in 2017. But on Saturday, the running lanes were tighter and Higdon had more difficulty getting chunk yardage — 12 of his carries went for three yards or fewer. And yet, his versatility and pass protection kept him as the lead back.
“He really got the ability to run all the assortment of runs,” Harbaugh said. “He’s not really in a category where he can only do inside runs or can only do outside runs, he can do both. (He) can also pass protect. High level of trust with Karan in every phase, including ball security. It allows us to do as much as the offense has.”
Even with a career-high in carries, the performance was a not a career-best. But his dependability rested not only in Higdon’s run game, but in his level-headedness. Higdon said he gets “hotter and hotter” with more carries, an assertion evidenced by his night-capping, fourth quarter touchdown.
His calmness was also emblematic of his sideline demeanor in a comeback situation.
“This was a game where guys had to really dig deep, look in the mirror and see how bad they really want it,” Higdon said. “Guys like myself, the other three captains, Shea, a lot of the guys on the defense stepped up, coaches — just saying, ‘Keep going, it’s a four quarter game, we have all a whole other half. This it the time to make a difference.’ And we did that.”
For now, Evans’ timetable to return is still a mystery. But without him, Higdon and his team still don’t bat an eye. When Higdon was told of the current Michigan record for rushing attempts — 51 carries by Chris Perry in 2003 — he laughed.
“50 carries? Shoot, I’d do it though,” he said. “… Whatever it takes to get the job done.”
And that’s what Higdon did Saturday, despite how ugly it was.