All year long, Michigan’s opponents have searched for the formula to stop the Wolverines’ fearsome rushing attack.
Add Michigan State to the list of teams who couldn’t find the elixir.
Led by its three-headed tailback combination of junior Mike Hart, sophomore Kevin Grady and freshman Brandon Minor, Michigan’s ground attack dominated the Spartans’ defense throughout Saturday’s contest. The Wolverines finished with 211 yards on 42 carries – their fourth 200-yard performance of the season.
“That’s what our gameplan was,” Grady said. “We just wanted to come in and establish the run. We wanted to run the ball, because obviously you run the ball, you keep possession of the ball. They’re the type of offense, being as explosive as they are, that we were trying to keep the ball out of their hands as much as possible.”
As usual, Hart was the focal point of Michigan’s running game. Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord called Hart’s No. 20 early and often, and the shifty runner picked up 122 yards before the end of the third quarter, good for his fifth 100-yard game of the season.
Only a twisted ankle – not the Michigan State defense – could slow Hart. The injury forced him out of action late in the third quarter, and he didn’t return to the backfield.
After the game, Hart indicated that the injury was minor.
“My ankle just got rolled,” Hart said. “I was fine after I got taped up. I could have gone back in.”
Even without its spark plug, the Wolverines’ ground game didn’t miss a beat. Immediately after Hart went down, Grady rattled off three consecutive carries for a combined 26 yards, moving the Wolverines to the Michigan State 40-yard line.
Grady’s scampers set the stage for the highly touted Minor to introduce himself emphatically to the Big House fans, who had previously seen just glimpses of Minor’s sky-high potential.
On first-and-10, Minor stepped in to spell Grady. He took the ball off right tackle, broke through one Spartan arm tackle, and then cut to the left side of the field. That’s when Minor showed off his jets, accelerating past Michigan State’s defenders and diving to the pylon for a 40-yard touchdown – his first collegiate score.
“Brandon, he’s explosive,” Grady said. “Everybody knows that. You give the kid a crease, he’s going to be gone. He’s real fast. He read it real well. The line had a great block, and he just took it to the house.”
As long as Hart’s ankle injury doesn’t become a lingering problem – and there’s no indication that it will – his time off during the Michigan State game might have been a blessing in disguise. Both Grady (12 carries for 51 yards) and Minor (three carries for 41 yards) finished with season-high rushing totals and developed more confidence heading into the second half of Michigan’s season.
“I thought Kevin (Grady) had some very good runs,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “And of course I was delighted to see Brandon Minor break a big play, because he’s done that a number of times this fall, in our practices, in our scrimmages. And he’s going to be a very good football player. So it creates some confidence from his standpoint, and it certainly improves our depth at that position to know that he’s been in a big game and acquitted himself well.”
As usual, the Wolverines’ rushing dominance contributed to big performances in other areas. Quarterback Chad Henne threw just 17 times but completed three touchdown passes with Michigan State’s defense stacked up against the run.
The defense also benefited from Michigan’s running machine. The Wolverines won the time of possession battle for the sixth-straight time this season, holding onto the ball for over 32 minutes. That total included Michigan’s longest drive of the season, a 13-play, 73-yard possession that concluded with a field goal and ate 7:12 off the clock. The drive featured 10 rushes.
Thanks to the Wolverines’ clock-eating running backs, their defense stayed hungry and fresh, containing quarterback Drew Stanton and Michigan State’s high-powered offense. The Spartans picked up 312 yards – their second-worst offensive performance of the year – and Michigan’s defense stiffened when it counted, giving up just 13 points.
“That’s really the essence of the game,” Carr said. “You look at most great defensive teams, and you’ll find, most of the time, an offense that is keeping them off the field and using the clock, that is not turning the football over in the short end of the field. I thought we did a great job carrying the football today, protecting it, and not turning it over.”