Monday afternoon, when Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was asked whether he likes the progress from the run game, he offered up only one word before pausing for further contemplation.
And so far through six games of the Josh Gattis era, the numbers back him up. Since averaging a miserable 2.1 yards per carry against Wisconsin, the Wolverines have managed at least 3.4 in every game since. Not lighting the world on fire, but progress.
On Saturday, Michigan football’s ground resurgence peaked in a 14-carry, 161-yard first quarter against Illinois. The Wolverines had five explosive plays (which they define as rushes of at least 12 yards) on the ground in the first 15 minutes — more than their last four games combined.
“We got the outside zone game going with the pin-and-pull, getting some linemen out on the edge, pulling our guards and center out there,” said offensive line coach Ed Warinner. “They did a nice job of that. But it was just good to establish the run game.”
Early in the season, teams were taking away that pin-and-pull play — Michigan’s most-used run scheme a year ago, according to Warinner. The play requires the strong-side tight end to seal the edge, allowing either a guard or center to pull and get to the second level, and opening up holes for potential big plays.
But facing different defensive looks in Gattis’ spread offense, the Wolverines hadn’t been able to open up holes on pin-and-pulls until Saturday.
“The difference in what you see defensively when you're in more spread-out formations and when you're in more condensed (is big),” Warinner said. “Yeah, that for sure has been the biggest difference for how you block.”
Michigan’s issues establishing the pin-and-pull underscore that larger point. It’s week eight now, and the Wolverines are still finding out which run packages work in Gattis’ offense.
Warinner knows that’s not okay. He also believes they’re still figuring it out.
“I just think it becomes clearer what you can and can't do and what you're good at and what you’re not good at,” Warinner said. “And it just, as that picture clears itself up, then you stick with that, do it more, build on it. So we’re all into doing that.”
The goal, of course, was to have an identity solidified long before entering the meat of their schedule — a bruising slate featuring marquee matchups against Penn State, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State in the latter half of the season.
Wednesday afternoon, Warinner said he evaluates what a team’s identity should be after two to three games. This year, its third game was a 21-point loss to Wisconsin, with just 40 rushing yards and a carry split in flux. Senior quarterback Shea Patterson, who ran for 273 yards a year ago, had a long of four yards that day.
Now, he has 42 yards in Michigan’s last two games. A modest total, but enough to get the Wolverines’ zone-read game working.
“That makes a defense stay honest,” Warinner said. “And when I say honest, they have to protect all the gaps. They can't collapse extra people into the box and so they have to be real cognizant of him as a threat. Because he is a threat, you've seen it the last couple weeks.”
In front of Patterson, the offensive line play has been there — “really getting consistent, gelling and playing with a style of play that’s physical, smart and tough,” as Harbaugh puts it. The running backs, despite their inexperience, have enough explosiveness to get the job done. The key is putting it all together into a coherent run game.
“You have to establish who you are and what you want to do,” Warinner said. “And then you evaluate. At some point, you have to say, here's what we’re good at.”
As the 11.5 yards per carry in the first quarter against Illinois showed, the Wolverines are getting there. As the 3.9 yards per carry after that showed, they still have a ways to go.