A one-dimensional offense became a zero-dimensional offense with senior quarterback Denard Robinson out of the game on Saturday, the running backs so stifled they gained just six yards in the second half. A seven-point deficit never felt so insurmountable, nor had the tailback question seemed so perplexing.
On Tuesday, redshirt junior tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint danced around explanations for yet another sluggish performance just like he danced around running lanes. The lack of production, he said, is no one’s fault, it’s just good defense. In other words, still no answers.
The running-back question has baffled the Michigan offense all season, but it reached a head on Saturday when the tailbacks generated a paltry 32 yards on the ground. Redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy bore most of the attention after the loss to Nebraska, but Toussaint and senior Vincent Smith were just as bad. And they have five full seasons of experience between them.
“Because we are a running team, when we don’t run well, we don’t play well,” said offensive coordinator Al Borges. “That’s kind of been the theme since I’ve been here.”
The answer to the running woes has eluded seemingly everyone on the Michigan team. In the past, redshirt junior offensive tackle Taylor Lewan has blamed the line. Michigan coach Brady Hoke has done much of the same.
Toussaint credited the defenses. Never mind that Michigan dominated those same defenses on the ground last year. And Borges said it doesn’t matter who gets the rushing yards — running back or quarterback — as long as it’s someone. Never mind that last year, Michigan said time and again they needed production from the tailback position specifically.
“I know the media, everybody always wants to blame it on one thing,” Borges said. “The depth, the quarterback, the play-calling, whatever it is. I heard Bill Parcells say this years ago. It’s never one thing. It’s always a bunch of things.”
Robinson typically bears the bulk of the rushing responsibility, but with his health status still unresolved, the answer to the tailback problem is even more pressing. Toussaint has yet to rush for more than 100 yards in a game this year, and he averages just 3.3 yards per carry. He rushed for more than 1,000 last year but has amassed just 321 yards this year.
On Saturday, each drive was as good as over before it began — because the drives usually began with a Fitzgerald Toussaint rush into nowhere. Toussaint rushed seven times in the second half, most on first down. Five times, he went for one yard or less. Still, that’s better than Smith, who rushed twice in the half, both times for a loss of four yards.
“I have to give credit to the defense that we play,” Toussaint said. “They can key on the run. Key on the run a lot and force us to pass.”
That was Nebraska’s plan with Bellomy in the game, sending blitzes at will without fear of getting beat through the air.
“He’s not really a threat,” Nebraska safety P.J. Smith said after the game on Saturday. “We were able to not be so (worried) about the quarterback.”
To a lesser extent, that’s how defenses have attacked Robinson. Yet he has generated plenty of yards on the ground. Hoke has pointed out that defenses can attack the tailbacks without being able to eliminate a mobile quarterback. But no one has explained why defenses would be more worried about Toussaint over the explosive Robinson.
Borges said again on Tuesday that he doesn’t care who rushes the ball, as long as someone rushes effectively. The offense only has problems, he said, when no one rushes the ball. He had problems on Saturday.
Hoke, too, said he was disappointed with the ground game, but he absolved Toussaint of any blame, saying that he “was happy with how he played.”
Instead, Hoke blamed the line, unlike Borges, who blamed everything.
“There’s times it’s the line, and there’s times it’s the back,” Borges said. “There’s times it’s the quarterback, and there’s times it’s the wide receiver … and I’m part of that, now.”
For the Wolverines, that leaves a lot of question marks. And they’re running out of answers.