When asked to assess his running back situation last Wednesday in light of the injuries that sidelined junior Brandon Minor against Northwestern, Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez’s list of possible contributors didn’t include junior Carlos Brown.
Rodriguez did mention freshman Sam McGuffie, who practiced all week. But on Saturday morning, McGuffie decided he was too banged up to play against Northwestern. He went through pregame warm-ups and stood, fully dressed, on the sidelines.
“I was shocked,” running backs coach Fred Jackson said about McGuffie’s decision. “He’s got some injuries. He’s got to be able to fight through them and be ready to go. I thought he was ready to go.”
But with McGuffie out unexpectedly and freshman Michael Shaw suffering an elbow injury that forced him to miss half the game, Brown became the top option in the backfield.
Before Saturday, Brown had carried the ball just three times all season for four yards.
A wrist injury limited him at the beginning of the season, and he suffered a foot strain once the wrist healed.
But when his team needed him Saturday, he turned in his best performance of the season — 23 carries for 115 yards.
“He still is not 100 percent, but he had to play today,” Jackson said.
And when playing in Saturday’s conditions, Michigan made the easy choice to keep the ball on the ground as much as possible.
“We knew we had to pound the rock,” left tackle Mark Ortmann said. “We came in with the mindset that we had to run the ball.”
With the depleted backfield and poor conditions, Brown became a workhorse. His longest gain of the day was 17 yards, and he was tackled for a loss just once.
Twice, when Michigan was backed up against its own end zone, Brown came up with second-and-long runs of more than 10 yards to pick up a first down and give the Wolverines more flexibility in their play-calling.
Still, he wasn’t able to display the game-breaking speed in the open field that McGuffie has brought to the offense all year. In the fourth quarter, Brown nearly had a chance to break one loose, but tripped on the wet field.
That slip-up might have cost Michigan a big gain on that play, but his performance on the afternoon gave the Wolverines a chance to win. Without Brown stepping up, even with his nagging injuries, Michigan would not have had an available back who can be a threat to break into the secondary.
“I just tip my hat to him because of the consistency,” Jackson said. “I can’t say enough about how he played.”
In a season, and a game, in which many unexpected things have happened to Michigan, Brown’s ability to respond was just another unexpected occurrence.