INDIANAPOLIS — For the second consecutive year, the Michigan football team transformed Lucas Oil Stadium into a colossal celebration. And when the main event — a 43-22 victory over Purdue in the Big Ten Championship game — gave way to the afterparty, Donovan Edwards still found himself at the center of it all.
Edwards, standing on a makeshift stage at midfield, snaked his way to the front of the scrum as his name echoed throughout the stadium. The sophomore running back had just been honored as the game’s MVP, recognition of his 185-yard, one-touchdown performance. He accepted the trophy from college football legend Archie Griffin, hoisted it above his head and glanced upwards, a drizzle of maize and blue confetti falling from the rafters.
“I rise to those occasions,” Edwards said postgame. “I thrive for that. … I believe I’m made for the big moments, you know?”
After back-to-back commanding performances in the two biggest games of Michigan’s season to date, that much is clear.
“This guy comes alive in big games,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said, his voice rising an octave to emphasize “alive.” “… This guy, when it’s a big game, I mean, his whole career, whether it was high school, college, now, he just hits another gear. He takes off to another level.”
Edwards’s ascent isn’t entirely unexpected. He is a former five-star recruit who, over the past two seasons, has shown brilliant flashes. A combination of injuries and a crowded running back room, though, have limited them to just that — mere flashes.
That complexion has changed, drastically. When Blake Corum injured his knee in the second quarter of Michigan’s game against Illinois on Nov. 19, the Wolverines’ season teetered. Yes, Michigan is a complete team, but Corum was their engine, their Heisman candidate, their bellcow. Filling his void seemed impossible, especially when the Wolverines struggled to move the ball against the Illini once Corum went down.
Only one player had the potential to change that. And Edwards — after missing two games himself with a hand injury — returned last Saturday in Columbus with a vengeance. On the heels of a mundane first half performance, he exploded in the second half, tallying 216 rushing yards and two long touchdown runs. He carved up Ohio State’s defense while cradling the ball only in his left hand, his right hand still wrapped in a soft cast.
Saturday unfolded similarly. Edwards took his first four carries for six yards. By halftime, he had 11 carries for just 37 yards, while Michigan clung to a 14-13 lead.
Then Edwards came alive.
Before a number of fans could even return to their seats from the concession lines, Edwards opened the second half with a bang. On a simple run to the left, he drew a one-on-one matchup at the line of scrimmage with Purdue cornerback Reese Taylor. Edwards juked, sent Taylor to the ground and sprinted down the far sideline for a 60-yard run. Michigan scored a touchdown four plays later.
On the next drive, Edwards took care of the job himself. Receiving a handoff at Purdue’s 27 yard line, Edwards pinballed his way off seven different Boilermakers, churning up the middle and into the endzone on a Marshawn Lynch-esque carry. Five minutes into the half, the Wolverines led by 15, with Edwards to thank.
“That’s who you are,” Harbaugh said postgame, looking at Edwards. “401 yards in the last two games. Amazing.”
Amazing and also necessary. When Corum injured himself, Michigan didn’t want to abandon the run. For two years, the Wolverines have dominated the opposition with a bruising, physical play style predicated on a bullying offensive line and talented running backs. It’s their identity — a smashmouth, wear you down football team — and it has propelled this stunning turnaround.
But without Corum, that vision no longer seemed feasible.
Few could have imagined the dominance that has followed.
Harbaugh — who described Corum and Edward as “two supreme backs” — was one of them.
“When this is the next man up, it’s that good,” Harbaugh said, grinning.
A few moments later, Harbaugh left the podium, ducking back into Michigan’s celebratory locker room. Walking down the stairs, he pointed at Edwards and pounded his chest. Edwards reciprocated.
In another world, it’s Corum at the podium, healthy and brilliant. But this is Edwards’s time now, his moment, and it felt like it as he hoisted the MVP trophy, did an array of postgame standups, ran over droves of defenders. And while unfortunate circumstances have created that, it’s clear that he’s ready.
Last week, charging out of the Ohio Stadium tunnel after the win, Edwards proclaimed “damn, this my stadium.” This week, in the wake of a similar performance, Edwards struck the same tone.
“I would say this is our home, too,” Edwards said. “We’ve been here last year, this year, and when we did our walk-through yesterday, it was just like, yeah this is our home right now. We were completely comfortable because a bunch of us have already played here last year. It was just another day in the office.”
Edwards makes it seem like that sometimes, undeterred by added burdens and unfazed by heightened stakes. He has at least one more big game to tackle, and if he can keep up this dominant stretch, well, he’ll likely have another one, too.