Of the drums the Michigan football team beat publicly during this abbreviated fall camp, one of the loudest and most resounding was the need for more explosive plays in the run game.
Running backs coach Jay Harbaugh first mentioned it back in May. His father, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, and others have harped on the subject while sitting in front of their webcams with reporters as well. When Jay Harbaugh spoke to media again in early October, it came up again.
“We just need to take the next step forward in terms of creating explosive runs,” Jay Harbaugh said.
Instead of a step, consider it a leap.
And it took all of two drives before becoming evident.
Down a touchdown after allowing a disastrous punt block early in Saturday’s game against Minnesota, the Wolverines lined up on their second drive and punched open a hole for sophomore running back Zach Charbonnet. It was wide enough for him to run 70 yards all but untouched, to the house.
That spot — down a touchdown after an unforced error — is one where Michigan has come undone in the past. On Saturday, it was long forgotten by the time the clock hit zeroes and the Wolverines left TCF Bank Stadium with a 49-24 win.
“Their defense was misaligned and we were able to get (senior guard) Chuck Filiaga, I think he blocked the backside safety from what I was looking at,” Jim Harbaugh said of Charbonnet’s run. “You don’t expect that, but great job by Chuck to get up on the backside safety and make that thing go the distance.”
A defensive error, yes. One that Michigan would have capitalized on in 2019, perhaps not.
Michigan came into Saturday with four new starters on its offensive line, four running backs capable of getting touches and little time to have made it all work. It left having answered questions up front, and having proved that questions in the backfield are merely semantical. (Junior quarterback Joe Milton led in carries with eight; of the four running backs, it was nearly an even split).
The Wolverines averaged 8.3 yards per carry and those explosive plays, they came when needed. Towards the end of the third quarter, junior Hassan Haskins broke one for 66 yards, setting up a Chris Evans touchdown minutes later that ended the competitive portion of the proceedings.
In 2019, the first year Josh Gattis held the reins as offensive coordinator, Michigan ran for over 250 yards twice in 13 games. On Saturday, the Wolverines ran for 256 and averaged over two yards more per carry than they did in any game in 2019.
“We got a lot of players that can do great things on the field,” Haskins said. “We got a lot of playmakers on the field in every single position group. Everybody can do it.”
That it came on the road, against a ranked opponent, albeit one that was missing a starting linebacker and had turnover at other positions, should not go unnoticed.
“Our backs, all of them played extremely well,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t know how many different people scored touchdowns, but it seemed like a lot.”
It was, to be exact, six — with Haskins, Charbonnet, Milton and fifth-year senior Chris Evans scoring five on the ground.
In a game anticipated to showcase Joe Milton’s ability as a passer, one of the strongest takeaways was ability to affect the run game in a way Shea Patterson never could. Gattis had no problems calling designed runs for his quarterback, slowly setting up a sure touchdown that sophomore tight end Erick All dropped when Michigan faked the same power run it had given Milton all night. (All quickly made up for his error with a 27-yard catch and run that led to a Milton rushing touchdown).
Even freshman Blake Corum, the fourth man in most of the running back discussions due to his youth, got in on the act. He took an early bubble screen 24 yards and finished with 24 rushing yards on five carries.
It’s one game, but that it took that short a time for Michigan to create a new expectation for the run game says something unto itself.
“Just every time our guys needed to step up and make a play and get that momentum back, they did tonight,” Harbaugh said. “It was really impressive.”
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