Michael Onwenu looked out of place on the play. In this case, that was a good thing.
With just over 14 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Michigan lined up on 1st-and-10 from the Rutgers 49-yard line. The Wolverines ran a counter to the left, and Onwenu pulled to that side.
He looked for a man to block. What he found was open space, enough to make him hesitate, if only for a moment.
Karan Higdon found that space too, trailing Michigan’s right guard before breaking to the left and busting the play open for a 49-yard touchdown.
By the end of the 35-14 victory, the Wolverines had commanded their way to four rushing touchdowns, 6.5 yards per carry and two rushers with 100-plus yards. They totaled 334 yards on the ground — the most since Michigan ran for 486 in Piscataway last year.
And the Wolverines’ backfield can thank Onwenu, and the rest of the offensive line, for that.
“I thought our running backs played extremely well, but you have to start giving the credit to the offensive line — a lot of credit to the offensive line,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “There were some nice big holes. Coach Drevno (did) a nice job with the run scheme. We had some very good schemed-up runs and they were executed extremely well. Tight ends, fullbacks, receivers, and especially the offensive line.”
The unit’s performance wasn’t perfect throughout. On the Wolverines’ final drive of the third quarter, Higdon was dropped twice for loss and redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peters suffered the same fate on a broken play.
By the end of the game, though, the Scarlet Knights mustered just two more tackles-for-loss, and didn’t record a single sack — something that was paramount for a Michigan team giving Peters his first meaningful minutes.
“The protection was great all day,” Peters said. “We had a great game plan coming into the game, and we executed it perfectly. It was great protection all day.”
Granted, Rutgers isn’t the most challenging test for what has been a struggling position group for the Wolverines. After all, Michigan was sacked seven times for 49 yards and sputtered to just 2.5 yards per carry in State College last weekend.
For that reason, Rutgers’ pass-rushing and run-stopping ability was, for the most part, irrelevant. The offensive line needed to establish, once again, that it is capable of protecting its quarterback and sparking the ground game. And that’s exactly what it did.
“My boys had something to prove,” Higdon said. “They had a ‘S’ on their chests. We got a little dominated last week against Penn State, had some troubles. We knew we were better than that, and we know what we’re capable of. I think it was good to hit adversity and bounce back. Those guys are tremendous at bouncing back off of adversity, and that’s what they did today. I’m proud of those guys.”
Higdon, more than anyone, reaped the benefits of his line’s performance. His 49-yard touchdown was the highlight, but he finished with a game-high 158 yards and two touchdowns. More impressively, the junior running back eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for his career.
It was an honor Higdon wasn’t aware of until after the game. It was one he didn’t take credit for, either.
“I didn’t even think about that, but it’s a big-time accomplishment,” he said. “It’s very big, especially in my career here at the University. I give all the credit to the guys up front, the guys in front of me. Without them, I couldn’t make things happen.”
The same, it appears, applies to Michigan’s offense as a whole.