The Michigan football team built its lead against UNLV on Saturday on a receiving touchdown by a running back and a rushing touchdown by a receiver. Then, a backup running back broke loose for a 76-yard touchdown to send the Wolverines into halftime ahead 21-0.
Finally, to cap Michigan’s scoring, its graduate-transfer quarterback checked down to a backup fullback to reach UNLV’s half-yard line. The backup fullback punched it in from there.
That’s the way things went for the Wolverines on Saturday. Their best offensive weapon, junior tight end Jake Butt, didn’t catch a pass until the fourth quarter. Their starting running back came out of the game for two series in the second half and finished with just 33 yards on 13 carries. And their defense, which — despite the emergence of redshirt junior defensive lineman Chris Wormley and a handful of other names — lacks a true star, protected the lead for the duration of the afternoon.
And that’s the way things will have to be for Michigan for the time being. In his first season, without time to overhaul the roster to his liking, coach Jim Harbaugh has pieced together a combination of contributors in hopes of creating a successful season out of what he inherited.
He wants tight ends? Fine. He’ll rely on Butt, mix in senior A.J. Williams and redshirt sophomore Khalid Hill, groom redshirt freshman Ian Bunting and convert former defensive end Henry Poggi.
He wants fullbacks? No problem. He’ll start Joe Kerridge, then go to Sione Houma — who scored his first career touchdown on a one-yard run — when Kerridge leaves the game with an ankle injury.
He wants power running? OK. But he’ll have to do it with the offensive line he was given, one of the more maligned units in the country the past two years.
And with two years of experience together and the help of the new coaching staff, the offensive line has come together to be at least serviceable, paving the way for 479 rushing yards in the past two games.
As for who gets those rushing yards, that depends on the week, too. Last week against Oregon State, it was junior De’Veon Smith, who broke out for 23 carries, 126 yards and three touchdowns. This week, junior Ty Isaac was the leading rusher with 114 yards on eight carries, including a 76-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
After the game, Harbaugh denied — even mocked — the idea of a running-back controversy.
“I think we’ll play as many good players as we can play and find roles to try to put them in as many roles as they can be successful,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a team game.”
Eventually, maybe Harbaugh will want a back who carries the ball at least 20 times every game, who gains at least 100 yards almost every game, who milks the clock to secure a victory at the end of every game.
But maybe that’s not what he has right now. He has had a 100-yard rusher in two straight games. If it’s two different 100-yard rushers, so be it. That might have to do for now.
“That’s part of game planning — putting in the player you want for the play,” Harbaugh said. “Trying to use everybody’s talent. Trying to get as many people involved as possible. I think we’re doing a good job of that at multiple positions — running back, fullback, tight end.”
Fullback has been a key position in almost all of Harbaugh’s offenses. Saturday, when Kerridge went down, Harbaugh turned to Houma for Michigan’s fourth touchdown. He knows what he wants his team to look like. If he has to shuffle and swap and fill in the gaps initially, he’ll do it.
Harbaugh acted like he didn’t understand a question about position controversies. He just doesn’t worry about them.
“It’s as clear as I can tell you,” Harbaugh said. “The more good players that we can have, the better for our football team. We’re encouraging that as much as we possibly can, and our players are responding to it.”
The only position he was prepared to answer was quarterback.
Ah, yes, the quarterback. The clear starter there is Rudock, a makeshift solution himself who transferred from Iowa after he lost the starting job at the end of last season. He had another mixed game Saturday, finishing 14-for-22 for 123 yards with a touchdown and an interception — his fifth in three games, equaling his total from all of last season.
But he did his job, in Harbaugh’s eyes. No one seems to have a major role, but everyone has some role.
“His job is to win football games,” Harbaugh said. “I thought he did a good job. Managed the game well. For the most part, the offense was moving darn near every time we got the ball.”
That’s more than Michigan could say at this time last year. Harbaugh hasn’t magically turned any players into superstars — as some may have thought he would — but the improvement is clear. One of the effects of the constant competition he enforces is that one player is always ready to step in.
Together, they make up an interesting cast of characters. A receiving running back, a running receiver, a backup running back and a backup fullback might not be the ideal situation for Harbaugh in the long run. But they’re what he has for now, so he has to make it work.
Lourim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jakelourim.