The Michigan football team reaches the red zone, and redshirt junior fullback Khalid Hill smiles. He knows his job is coming up.
The Wolverines have plenty of big-play threats designed to put the offense in position to score touchdowns. They only have one, for the most part, designed to punch the ball in the end zone once they come close. That player is Hill, and he relishes his role.
A month ago, Hill made headlines by giving himself the nickname “The Hammering Panda.” Now, he has started to go by the moniker “the vulture,” too. Perhaps his uniqueness merits more than one label.
Hill’s role as the goal-line specialist has continued, and his numbers have only become more lopsided. He has carried the ball 21 times this year and not lost yards on any of them. He has scored on nine of those rushes, tying for 36th in the country in touchdowns. But he has gained just 34 yards total, ranking ninth on the team and tying for 735th in the country. His longest carry went for four yards.
As many times as Hill has gone in for a fullback dive at the one-yard line, Michigan’s opponents cannot seem to stop it. The offensive line gets a push, redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight hands him the ball and Hill lunges over the goal line. His teammates have started to notice.
“In the huddle, hearing the guys talking to me and stuff like that, just being like, ‘Khalid, let’s get it,’ ” Hill said. “It’s good to hear the guys trusting me, trusting me to get the job done. I appreciate those guys for that.”
Hill’s ability to score from short yardage is a significant asset for the Wolverines — because it’s no easy task, as Michigan’s defense has proven. Of all the statistical mismatches the Wolverines own this season, red-zone efficiency may be the most staggering.
Led by Hill, Michigan’s offense has ventured into the red zone 54 times and scored 49 times, 39 touchdowns and 10 field goals, for an average of 5.63 points per trip.
“I think it’s just the mentality,” Hill said. “Our mentality is, when we get in the red zone, let’s score. Let’s finish it off. What’s the point of going through all that on a 70-yard drive or 60-yard drive and we get to the red zone and get stopped? It’s pointless. You wasted your time. You wasted all that breath, that hard work for nothing.”
Michigan’s opponents, meanwhile, have reached the red zone just 14 times in nine games. And on those series, the Wolverines’ defense has allowed points on just eight (including three of six against Michigan State) for a total of 47 points, 3.36 per trip.
In a close game, that makes a big difference. In East Lansing, for example, both teams drove into the red zone six times, but Michigan outscored Michigan State by 10 in those situations — and won the game by nine.
Saturday was another glaring instance. The Wolverines twice allowed Maryland to reach their 1-yard line but didn’t allow points either time. On the first occasion, the Terrapins moved backward from there and then missed a field goal, and on the second, redshirt junior linebacker ran down a receiver and stopped him a yard shy of the goal line just as the first half ended.
“And not allowing them to be in until they’re in, I think that’s a great quality of a defense,” Harbaugh said. “They hit a long screen play, and it was down inside the 20, the 15, the 10, the 5 and then we make the tackle on the 2- or 3-yard line. They’re not in until they’re in. That mentality, playing on their side of the line of scrimmage, with multiple, double-digit tackles for loss.”
The defense’s strength in holding its own goal line dates back to last year, when the unit was similarly dominant in those situations. Former coordinator DJ Durkin often talked about just needing a “place to stand” and making use of it, and the Wolverines have done so again.
Harbaugh mentioned that in general, conversion rates in the red zone are lower than anywhere else on the field, because teams often dig in and stack the box like Michigan does. No team has been as stifling as the Wolverines in those situations, though.
“It’s a tough thing to do as an offense, to score from inside the 5-yard line,” Harbaugh said. “So there’s that, and you know, just get ’em down. They’re not in until they’re in, and you don’t give in.”
Michigan’s offense, though, does not have the same problem. The Wolverines are tied for 15th in the country at converting red-zone chances into touchdowns, because even if they can’t score on a big play, they have Hill as a second option.
Saturday against Maryland, freshman running back Chris Evans took a screen pass 56 yards and nearly scored, but after review, the officials called him down at the 1-yard line, giving Hill another opportunity to finish the job. That and other similar occasions throughout the year have opened “the vulture” up to some good-natured ribbing.
“Everybody kind of gets on me about that,” Hill said, then added with a smile, “People call me the vulture because I always get the touchdown, but it’s not my fault — you should have got in the end zone.”