The play was 466 days in the making. Junior running back Ty Isaac caught the pitch from fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock and looked upfield on first down with 8:04 left in the second quarter of Michigan’s game against UNLV.
Fifth-year senior Graham Glasgow bowled over a Rebel defender to Isaac’s left. Another defender swiped at Isaac’s legs just after he crossed the line of scrimmage. He fell down, grasping for air. Two more defenders dove to slow down Isaac soon after he crossed the first-down marker. All they hit was the ground.
Isaac sprinted alone for the last 60 yards of his 76-yard touchdown run, leaving the fallen defenders behind him. The score was Isaac’s first since he transferred to Michigan from Southern California on June 10, 2014. He had been waiting for the moment.
After Isaac’s hardship waiver to play in the 2014 season was denied by the NCAA, all he could do was practice. Isaac believes he improved in his year off the field, and that his work in practice helped the team. His play in practice, though, did not have the lasting impact that Saturday’s touchdown did. He finished the game with 114 yards on eight carries.
“It feels a lot better when you can put it on the scoreboard,” Isaac said.
The touchdown was the third of Isaac’s career. During his freshman year at USC, he totaled 40 carries for 236 yards and two touchdowns. But he decided to transfer after that season to be closer to his family in the Midwest, and then came the tough part: the wait.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh didn’t think Isaac’s touchdown drought would end the moment that it did. He said after the game that Isaac’s touchdown run was blocked improperly, that he believed Isaac would be brought down in the backfield for a loss. His inclination was incorrect.
Isaac scampered to the back of the end zone, quickly spiking the ball to the ground before turning around to greet teammates. Sophomore wide receiver Freddy Canteen jumped into his arms. So did junior tight end Jake Butt. The offensive linemen greeted Isaac one by one as he left the end zone, patting him on the back and the face mask. He jogged with Rudock to the sideline, where he met junior running back De’Veon Smith for a leap and a hug.
“It was a heck of a run,” said redshirt junior wide receiver Jehu Chesson. “He’s been doing it in practice. He shows up for practice. Because nobody sees practice, nobody sees how hard a guy runs in practice or how hard he works, so when you do see success, that’s why it’s so elevating.”
For the first two weeks of the season, it had been Smith carrying the bulk of the load at running back, though he ran for just 33 yards on 13 carries Saturday. Against Oregon State last week, Smith scampered for 126 of the Wolverines’ 225 rushing yards.
Isaac allowed Michigan to extend its success in the run game. The Wolverines rushed for 254 yards Saturday, marking the first time Michigan had registered more than 200 yards on the ground in back-to-back games since October 2012.
Isaac’s success creates a conundrum of sorts for Harbaugh. It appeared as though Smith’s early-season success had separated him from the pack as the No. 1 running back, but that is no longer evident.
How exactly Harbaugh will divvy up the carries going forward is unknown, but the coach is not overly concerned.
“The more good players that we can have, the better for our football team,” Harbaugh said. “We’re encouraging that as much as we possibly can, and our players are responding to it.”
UNLV’s flailing tacklers know that better than anyone else.