As the No. 10 Michigan football team’s regular season ended, several things were obvious.
It was obvious when thousands of red-clad fans bellowed “OH-IO!” in Michigan Stadium before the game had ended that No. 8 Ohio State had won, and one glance at the scoreboard made it obvious that the Buckeyes had won so convincingly that the remaining Michigan fans in the stadium were too deflated to shut their rivals up.
And one glance at Ezekiel Elliott, De’Veon Smith or the box score made it obvious what the Wolverines need to finally fix their Ohio State woes — a run game.
“He played really good. He’s a heck of a player,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “(I) congratulated him on a good game.
“We didn’t stop the run well enough. … We’re not making excuses.”
Elliott brought a world of hurt with him to Michigan Stadium. Entering the game seventh in the nation in rushing yards with 1,458, he somehow outdid himself. Elliott was indisputably the difference in the game, mowing down the clock and aspiring Michigan tacklers at the same time. The only time he lost yardage was on the last play of the game.
He ran for 214 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries — against the nation’s fourth-best run defense, no less.
Michigan, in contrast, ran the ball 25 times for just 57 yards.
“We’re going to regroup and come back with the same aspirations — to win the football game,” Harbaugh said.
The concept that a good running back is critical to success on the gridiron is not new, and Michigan knows that.
There used to be a time when the Wolverines would crank out Elliott-type backs year after year. From 1987 to 1996, Michigan had eight running backs taken in the NFL Draft.
It’s no coincidence that, during that same stretch, the Wolverines were 7-2-1 against the Buckeyes, including six when Ohio State was ranked.
It’s no coincidence because, between talented rivals, things can get wacky. Late November can rear its ugly head, previously unheard of players can rise to the occasion, and even simple plays can go awry.
The only way to secure success is to have a go-to back who can win the game himself if he has to. When Harbaugh guaranteed a victory over No. 7 Ohio State in 1986, he had a terrible game, but Jamie Morris bailed him out with 210 rushing yards. In 1995, Tshimanga Biakabutuka ran for 313 yards to take down the then-unbeaten Buckeyes.
Heroes in the rivalry have long come from the backfield. Elliott did that Saturday.
“We should do that every week honestly,” Elliott said of the rushing attack. “The way our offensive line plays, when we go up-tempo … as the game goes on we only feel stronger, that just was kind of everything.”
On Michigan’s sideline, a tailback hero was nowhere to be found in the blowout loss, and that’s nothing new. Despite the string of running back success for decades, the Wolverines haven’t had a true go-to back since Mike Hart was taken in the sixth round of the 2008 NFL Draft.
Michigan has just one win over Ohio State since, and that isn’t a coincidence either.
And despite returning five starting offensive linemen, four running backs from last season and throwing star-in-the-making Jabrill Peppers into the mix, the run game sputtered at an alarming rate to close the season.
Michigan made plenty of improvements this season as a team. But until the Wolverines develop a dominant run game, Ohio State will continue to rule Michigan Stadium.