On Wednesday, Michigan running backs coach Mike Hart told reporters that his biggest regret from the Wolverines’ matchup against Washington was keeping Donovan Edwards on the bench for so long. On Saturday, we saw why.
With just under seven minutes left in the third quarter, the freshman running back came barreling down the middle of the field with the ball in his hands and one thing in his sights: his first college touchdown.
With just four yards between the line of scrimmage and the end zone, Edwards easily made it through, putting Michigan up, 56-3.
Edwards had picked up a handful of yards in the Western Michigan and Washington games — 27 and four, respectively — but he made his first true impact on the stats sheet this weekend against Northern Illinois with eight carries, 86 yards and two touchdowns.
Two minutes after his first, he found the end zone again. At the 42-yard line, Edwards waited for the Wolverines’ offensive line to create an opportunity, and then he took it. Finding a hole in the Huskies’ defense, he outran every defender en route to a 76-yard touchdown.
Together, these two moments were emblematic of Michigan’s offense this weekend: systematically grinding down Northern Illinois’s defense while creating and taking big offensive opportunities whenever it could. More than that, it kept the ball almost entirely on the ground. After receiving criticism for last week’s run-game-dominated performance, the Wolverines did pick up the passing game, securing 233 yards in the air compared to 44 against Washington.
“That was a goal of ours going into the game. We wanted to rush for 200 yards, we wanted to pass for 200 yards,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters after Saturday’s game. “Felt like the timing is there, the execution has been there in practice.”
Yes, the Wolverines were passing, but it wasn’t the driving force behind the offense. It was barely an afterthought. Out of nine touchdowns, only one resulted from a pass — an 87-yard bomb caught by junior receiver Cornelius Johnson.
Michigan’s offense is still irrefutably defined by its run game. Saturday, the Wolverines registered 373 yards on 48 carries. In each game so far this season, the Wolverines have picked up more rushing yards than the one before. Michigan now leads the nation with 1,051 yards on the ground.
This identity — an identity it seems offensive coordinator Josh Gattis has been trying to find since arriving in Ann Arbor three years ago — could serve as a strong, stable foundation for Gattis to build upon. Even with the implied asterisk that comes with a win over an inferior opponent, a 63-point trouncing isn’t meaningless.
It’s an identity built primarily on the backs of sophomore Blake Corum and senior Hassan Haskins. The duo holds a combined 688 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns this season.
Going into the season, it was anticipated that the run game would be a focal point of this offense.
“We’ve got really good running backs,” Gattis told reporters before the start of the season. “Those guys need the ball. We’ve got to make a firm commitment to run the ball. That’s how your numbers go up from that standpoint.”
Adding Edwards as a valuable third wheel adds stability to that strategy.
“It’s so tremendous with (Corum) and (Haskins),” Harbaugh said. “You talk about that kind of tandem at running back. Each is so good. Add Donovan in there. Donovan, he’s quite the back himself. He does a great job with ball security, it’s important to him. Some people are just better at that than other people, and he’s really good at that.”
If Haskins and Corum are thunder and lightning, Edwards is a downpour: maybe not as flashy, but relentless and powerful all the same. This trio could be planting the seeds for an offensive identity that defines Michigan not just this season but for years to come.
Or it could be a ceiling. Yes, give Haskins the ball and you can beat Northern Illinois. You can beat Rutgers and probably Minnesota. But Penn State? Ohio State? The Wolverines are going to struggle to find the success they’re looking for in the long term without an equally strong passing game.
A common football truism is that the team that controls the rushing game usually wins.
Think back to the Wolverines’ most recent triumph over the Buckeyes in 2011. Michigan was focused on the run game. It outran Ohio State 277 yards to 137 and the Buckeyes out-passed the Wolverines 235 yards to Michigan’s 167.
But a regression analysis published in the Sport Journal showed that having a first-half passing-yard advantage increases the probability of winning whereas an advantage in rushing yards has no effect. As such, the saying is probably a case of reverse causation — teams that takes the lead will likely pull ahead in rushing yards as well.
Now, think back to 2016. Michigan had an offense anchored by running backs Karan Higdon, De’Veon Smith and Chris Evans. The Wolverines started the season with a 63-3 win against Hawaii, a blowout that started a nine-game win streak. It was a good Michigan team, but in big moments it couldn’t pull through.
An Iowa defense was able to stop the run game, and there was no passing game to fall back on. An intercepted pass in the third quarter caused the Wolverines to blow a 17-3 lead against Ohio State. Michigan notched two passing touchdowns in its Orange Bowl appearance, but it wasn’t enough to prevent another loss to another ranked opponent.
No one can say that 10-3 is a disappointing season. No one can say that the Wolverines weren’t good in 2016.
But it didn’t hit the benchmarks of success that Michigan has set for itself, that Michigan fans have come to place their blind faith in — and it hasn’t done so since.
If the Wolverines really hope to live up to their own expectations, they can’t rely solely on the run game.
But, it’s a great place to start.
Managing Sports Editor Lane Kizziah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @KizziahLane