Driving down the field midway through the first quarter, the No. 18 Michigan football team sent in Karan Higdon to get the job done.
You might not know much about the freshman running back, but that’s OK. With four running backs who entered the season with starting experience, many assumed Higdon was going to redshirt.
That hunch seemed to hold some weight when Higdon’s name hadn’t been called five games into the season, but Saturday, it was disproven faster than you could ask the person next to you who Karan Higdon was.
“I thought there were a few specialty runs that he would be good at, and he was,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.
The freshman didn’t play a huge role in the game — he finished with eight carries for 16 yards — but he was one of several examples of the Wolverines’ communal offense.
Against a stout defense that led the nation in scoring defense before Saturday, the Wolverines didn’t lean only on their proven go-to players to move the football. Instead, Michigan spread the ball around just as much, if not more, than in its previous blowouts. Nine players had carries on the ground, and seven made catches. Second-string tight end A.J. Williams led all receivers with four receptions.
The unorthodox strategy proved successful, as the Wolverines scored more points Saturday (38) than the Wildcats had allowed in the rest of the season combined (35).
“We just have a lot of guys that are working hard and trying to get open,” said fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock. “Our coaches feel confident with those guys running routes, and so do I. Whenever you have guys you feel confident in and can count on, the more chances you have to be successful.”
Saturday’s spread-out production was nothing new. Through six games, Michigan has passed the ball to 16 different receivers and seven different players have rushing touchdowns. Both of those numbers lead the Big Ten.
Injuries and blowouts enhance those numbers, but according to junior running back De’Veon Smith, the strategy would not change in tight games.
“It helps when you spread the wealth out to everybody,” he said. “You can’t prepare as well because everybody can make plays, (as a defense) you don’t know who’s going to get the ball or make the plays, so it helps out a lot.”
Theoretically, the communal system becomes obsolete when one player starts to stand out. Smith has done that, already earning two 100-yard games this season and flashing an ability to extend plays as well as any lead back in the country, but Michigan’s approach has gone relatively unchanged. Smith has seen plenty of time sideline despite being to best running back.
Any jealousy from Smith, however, is drowned out by empathy and competitive spirit. When Smith’s backups, redshirt junior Drake Johnson and junior Derrick Green, scored two of the offense’s three touchdowns Saturday, Smith wasn’t sulking on the sidelines. In fact, he was one of the first to congratulate both scorers.
“You can’t predict what’s going to happen or when you’ll score,” Smith said. “It’s just exciting for all of us to see someone getting in that end zone, and it pushes all of us to do better so we can get the score next time.”
For the first times in a long time, the Wolverines don’t have any obvious NFL-caliber players on offense. But by spreading the ball around, even to backup fullbacks and lightly-used freshmen like Higdon, the offense is still cashing in where it counts.