The football theory of establishing the run has been long disproven. There’s no correlation between running the ball early and winning games, no matter how many coaches or players insist otherwise. And there’s no statistical reason to particularly care about establishing the run.
But stats aren’t everything. And for Michigan, it’s about something more than finding a statistical correlation to winning.
All last week, in the wake of Wisconsin manhandling the Wolverines, we heard about how Michigan wanted to be more physical. How when the Wolverines lost that, rushing for just 40 yards on 19 tries against the Badgers, they lost their identity.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Michigan came out running against Rutgers, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it did so successfully.
“It’s important,” said senior guard Ben Bredeson. “You gotta establish the run, like you said, to (set up) our passes. Thought we did a good job with that, thought we ran the ball well on Saturday.”
The Wolverines scampered for 141 yards on the ground, their highest mark since the opener against Middle Tennessee, as their offense found a coherent rhythm for the first time all year. The runs set up Josh Gattis’ option game, and senior quarterback Shea Patterson looked comfortable making reads in the new offense for the first time.
Unlike in week two against Army, when freshman Zach Charbonnet carried the ball 33 times, Michigan kept its rotation mixed. That’s in part due to a lingering injury to Charbonnet, who had just five carries, but Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh indicated that a committee setup could be here to stay.
“I liked the fact that you can split it up, maybe 20, 20, 20, maybe a few for a fourth guy,” Harbaugh said. “But Zach played really well. Christian Turner played really well in this game, had some really fine runs. And Hassan Haskins really played well.”
That fourth guy, presumably, would be Tru Wilson, who returned from a broken hand with four carries for 13 yards. Wilson said Monday he played with a pad on his hand, but it didn’t affect him.
Even against Rutgers in a relatively successful game on the ground, the numbers weren’t completely there. Michigan averaged just 3.4 yards per carry, and even with the caveats of garbage time, sacks and a lot of carries in the red zone, that number should raise eyebrows.
That’s where, to buy that the Wolverines found the success they were looking for on the ground, you need to buy that it was as much about the mentality as the bottom-line number.
“I think we just got in a rhythm early and like I said, this offense gets in a rhythm, you can see the big plays that we can create,” Bredeson said. “That’s something we were able to do and we kept rolling with it.”
Certainly, that much is true.
A healthier Charbonnet will presumably make the stats look better. But like everything in Saturday’s 52-0 win, 3.4 yards per carry comes with the asterisk of being against Rutgers, arguably the worst team in the Power Five.
Iowa, a team that’s giving up just 78.5 yards on the ground per game, will provide a stiffer test this Saturday. Don’t expect Michigan to stray away from its principles.
“Being a Michigan running back, it’s really important (to establish the run) because throughout the years, you see that they’re just a punishing running team,” Wilson said. “Just building an identity of being a physical team.”