After watching No. 2 Penn State's running back — and Heisman Trophy contender — Saquon Barkley run right through Michigan’s then-top-ranked defense to the tune of 108 yards and two touchdowns, the Wolverines could have been swayed by the idea that one tailback is better than three.
In Michigan’s ground game, junior Karan Higdon, sophomore Chris Evans and fifth-year senior Ty Isaac all have a role to play. And as far as the Wolverines are concerned, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
It may have taken two players, but Michigan’s backfield managed to match Barkley’s performance with 103 yards and a pair of touchdowns of their own Saturday. They were the Wolverines’ only scores on the night.
Ever since redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight’s injury, reliance on rushing has become a common theme for Michigan. While the passing game has taken a sizable hit, the running game has emerged to take its place.
“As a whole, we have to adapt and do what we’re capable of doing at a high level,” said running backs coach Jay Harbaugh. “… I think that’s in our nature because we’re built to do a lot of different things. So whether it’s run-heavy or pass-heavy, it’s just going to be week-by-week. And as the season goes, it just unfolds based on how certain position groups are playing.”
Some units may not have been ready to make that leap, but the Wolverines’ trio of backs have taken it upon themselves to dictate the direction of the offense. Each of them has put forth standout performances, from Isaac against Cincinnati to Evans against Purdue to Higdon against Indiana.
Higdon had the best outing of the bunch, posting a 200-yard, three-touchdown day which included a 59-yard score that could — and should — have iced the game against the Hoosiers. The burst through the middle displayed the techniques that Michigan has attempted to instill in its rotational backs.
“When a run is blocked properly, there should be one guy or two guys left unblocked that could potentially make the play,” Harbaugh said. “… The two safeties were unblocked, and Karan had the speed to split them right down the middle. That’s the kind of thing that your running has to take care of those extra one or two guys.”
Though Higdon has claimed the starting spot, Evans and Isaac still factor heavily in the Wolverines’ scheme. The matter of splitting carries can be tricky, but Michigan has formulated a method that works for it.
Harbaugh designs certain plays specifically for each of the three based on their particular strengths. In many cases, Isaac rushes behind the offensive line with his strength, Evans rushes to the outside with his speed and Hidgon rushes through the gaps with his power.
Their running ability is certainly important, but to Harbaugh, so is their blocking ability. In order to gain more playing time, it is necessary to possess both to be a complete back.
“You’re looking for just reliability assignment-wise, for one,” he said. “Running the plays the way they’re supposed to be run. Reading the runs the proper way. And pass protection-wise, understanding where the protection is going, who they’re responsible for and then executing the physical part of the block. It’s not necessarily like, ‘Hey, this guy practiced the best, so he’s going to play the most’ … (It’s) ‘let’s figure out a way to put them in situations where they can succeed.’
“… As the season has gone on, certain guys have emerged as being more reliable or trustworthy on third down, as protection backs or as receiving backs.”
Since fifth-year senior quarterback John O’Korn took over under center, pass protection has also been a major point of emphasis. While a large degree of that responsibility belongs on the shoulders of the offensive line, the running backs have obligations there as well.
In the Wolverines’ two losses, the highly-ranked defenses of No. 16 Michigan State and Penn State made that task harder than Michigan could handle. O’Korn was sacked four and seven times, respectively, which showed Harbaugh that there is still a long way to go in that phase of the game.
“We’re really chasing perfection, where we can stack game-after-game where the quarterback isn’t getting touched,” he said. “… We gotta continue to grow in terms of being disciplined with our eyes and being 100 percent perfect with assignments. The guys understand that that’s what the standard is and (we’re) just grinding at that every single day.
“Will you ever get there? Maybe, maybe not. But if you can get really close to it, and keep the quarterback clean, you’re going to be pretty good as an offense.”
Harbaugh is the first to admit that there is still room to grow for his unit, but it has been trending upward. Now, Michigan needs it to carry the load.
And that’s an encouraging sign for the first-time running backs coach.
“They work hard, they take a lot of pride in what they do, they really, really want to win and they approach a pretty selfish position unselfishly, and that’s huge,” Harbaugh said. “It makes it fun to have everyone be together and work together, and it gives you a better chance for success.”