Like his fellow offensive linemen, Ben Braden heard the criticism. And like the rest of the unit, he had heard it before. But when the Michigan football team rushed for just 119 yards against Central Florida, Braden — the Wolverines’ fifth-year senior left guard — had to take it from unlikely sources.
“Even my family and friends will be like, ‘What was going on with that?’ or ‘We expected more from you guys,’ and yeah, we always expect to have more rushing yards,” Braden said. “Sometimes it just depends on the game and what scheme the defense has.”
Saturday, two weeks after that lackluster performance, the Wolverines erased doubt. They rushed for 326 yards, their highest total since the 2014 season opener against Appalachian State and their most in a Big Ten game since Oct. 13, 2012, against Illinois.
The breakout game was rewarding especially for Braden, who missed the Sept. 3 season opener against Hawaii to avoid aggravating a lower-back strain. After he fully recovered, he jumped back into action the next week against Central Florida, splitting time with freshman Ben Bredeson and then playing the entire game Saturday against the Nittany Lions.
Braden said he hasn’t suffered any setbacks since the injury and now feels better than he did even at the end of last season. According to Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, he played 80 snaps, the most on the team — a title usually reserved for redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers.
But this week, Michigan’s offense ran 84 plays compared to Penn State’s 55, putting the offense on the field for most of the game. The Wolverines’ running game controlled the clock, and while some of the other proficient rushing performances have been boosted by big plays, the 326 on Saturday was a result of a bruising attack.
Michigan gained 40, 39, 37, 30 and 25 yards on five runs, but no more than 11 on any other. Even without those carries, the Wolverines still would have averaged a modest 3.5 yards per carry.
The pounding took a toll on Penn State, too. At one point in the second half, Michigan called seven consecutive runs — five dive plays and two toss plays — and rolled over the Nittany Lions to the tune of 43 yards and a touchdown.
“I loved it,” Braden said. “It was a lot of fun. I haven’t had that much fun in a while … that is always awesome. It’s always a sense of satisfaction as an offensive lineman when you run that many yards and you have that many points and score many touchdowns. You see your running backs hitting huge run plays, and you just feel like, ‘All right, we did our job because he’s 10, 15 yards down the field, or more.’ ”
More often, the opposing offensive players are the ones standing with their hands on their hips in the second halves of games, buckling under the physicality of Michigan’s defense. Saturday, Penn State’s defense showed similar wear toward the end of those drives in the second half. The Wolverines strung together six possessions of at least nine plays apiece.
Michigan’s rushing attack also showed less diversity and more of a rhythm than in previous weeks. The Wolverines can use several weapons in their ground game, including four running backs, two fullbacks and speedy wide receivers Jehu Chesson and Eddie McDoom.
But on Saturday, 42 of Michigan’s 49 carries went to the backfield, and many of those went up the middle. Two sweeps to McDoom, two scrambles by redshirt sophomore quarterback Speight and three kneel-downs were the only exceptions. The four running backs each ran for at least 6.7 yards per carry, a good sign for a rushing attack that was still looking to establish continuity between four players.
“I like so many things,” Harbaugh said. “De’Veon, boy does he run hard, gosh. He had one of his runs early in the game where he broke in there, six or seven yards, and then bounced off a tackle, did the spin, kept going. Somebody’s trying to hit him, and he’s still going.
“But to watch our offensive line pursue, that’s what really got me excited. Our offensive line knows it, too, when De’Veon’s running the football. Their pursuit was almost as good as our defense’s pursuit. And that’s gotten better, because they know that they got a chance to get downfield and make a block.”
The offensive line now heads into a stern test Saturday against Wisconsin, which deploys a defensive front much like Michigan’s. The Badgers rank 10th in the country in rush defense, allowing just 80.5 yards per game, 42 fewer than the Wolverines.
Making holes against that unit will not be as easy as it was against Penn State, but with a fully healthy Braden, the Wolverines are as prepared as they can be. When told he played 80 snaps on Saturday, Braden said, “I didn’t know I played that many. It went by quick.”