LINCOLN — Walking into Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nebraska’s rush defense ranked first in the country. Stifling opponents at the line of scrimmage, the Cornhuskers allowed just 46.2 yards on the ground each game.
It took the No. 2 Michigan football team two drives to raise the average.
On their first nine rushes, the Wolverines gained exactly 47 yards and — in less than half of a quarter — put the best statistical rushing defense in the country to bed. Time and time again, Michigan ran roughshod on a Cornhuskers defensive line that prided itself on swallowing up running backs.
Nebraska’s plan initially appeared simple. Eyeing bellcow, senior running back Blake Corum and slow-starting, junior running back Donovan Edwards, the Cornhuskers had the No. 2 Michigan football team’s leading rushers in their sights. Yet, rising to the top was senior running back Kalel Mullings.
“(Mullings is) just really putting it all together,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said postgame. “Putting the leg cycle together, putting the downhill running together, being able to lower his pads right at the line of scrimmage, keep the legs going.”
Harbaugh’s high praise was not simply fluff. Mullings finished the day with 43 yards on five attempts — nearly reaching Nebraska’s average allowed yards himself. That was good for 8.6 yards per carry, more than doubling Edwards’ 3.4. As the much maligned start to the season has generated negative buzz about Edwards, Mullings has taken his opportunity and ran with it.
A converted linebacker recruited to play on defense for the Wolverines out of high school, Mullings made the partial switch back to running back this past season. It wasn’t necessarily a clean transition.
It saw highs, such as Mullings’ improbable jump pass to then-true freshman tight end Colston Loveland to convert a third down against Ohio State. It saw lows though, too. Mullings received the lion’s share of backlash for a goal line fumble during the College Football Playoff against TCU.
Harbaugh’s staff had seen enough to make a decision, though. Mullings converted to offense full-time over the offseason. Now, after some months practicing dodging linebackers instead of trying to be one, the senior finally has his legs under him.
“These past couple weeks I’ve been feeling really good about running the ball again,” Mullings said. “Just transitioning to full-time offense this offseason. I’ve just been feeling more and more comfortable as time goes on. Right now I feel the most comfortable I’ve felt.”
It’s a comfort that almost seems perplexing at first glance. Mullings stands at 6-foot-2, 239 pounds — hardly the makeup of a nimble back. But, while he may not have the moves of Corum, Mullings flexed his rushing ability on limited opportunities Saturday.
Despite those five attempts, Mullings “can write the book on what a big back is supposed to be,” according to Harbaugh, as the once-linebacker sliced and diced all day. Exerting north-south speed, coupled with quick feet, Mullings best run of the day came on a 20-yard touchdown scamper. Knocking off arm tackles left and right, Mullings momentarily shucked his supposed-powerback role against the Cornhuskers.
“It didn’t even look like those arm tackles were there on the 20 yard run, but there was probably four to eight arms that he ran through on that run,” Harbaugh said. “Like an arrow through snow is what it looked like to me.”
Touted earlier in the season as the third back in a run-focused Michigan offense, Mullings did indeed elevate himself from a simple power-back role. Yet, he still found success with his bread and butter.
The Wolverines eclipsed a 60 percent third down conversion rate against a porous Nebraska run defense. Largely due to Mullings’ bumping and bruising. Though Michigan pulled away early, Mullings single-handedly saved drives at times. Relieving other backs in the midst of 90-degree heat, Mullings produced four first downs out of four third down attempts, and even converted a fourth-and-one.
When Mullings got the ball in his hands, he answered the call.
“He’s been playing good,” graduate offensive lineman Trevor Keegan said. “He’s been hitting the holes, seeing it right. I think when the opportunity comes, (and) his number is called, he takes full advantage of it.
Part time arrow in the snow and part time battering ram, what made his runs so impressive was that in the midst of bruising, Mullings found ballet.
Now, to say that Mullings has attained a third-monster back role in the Wolverines’ offense would be more than disingenuous. However, as Edwards’ struggles glare, and Corum continues to search for the final gear that propelled him into Heisman conversations last season, Mullings’ presence lets Michigan sleep easy — and gives Nebraska’s run defense nightmares.