It was when Fitzgerald Toussaint paused that the inevitable outcome became clear.
It happened late in the first quarter on Saturday, when the redshirt junior running back broke a tackle after having bounced to the outside. Toussaint stopped briefly to regain his balance. Upon recovery, he found himself about 10 yards from the end zone. There were no Massachusetts defenders in immediate sight.
After a sky-high dive across the goal line, the play concluded with Toussaint crashing in for No. 17 Michigan’s second touchdown of the afternoon.
It was a sign of things to come. After putting up a mere 57 yards in the first two games of the season and looking lethargic in doing so, Toussaint and the rest of the running backs broke out against the Minutemen. He, fifth-year senior Vincent Smith and sophomore Thomas Rawls combined for 149 yards on 24 carries, almost tripling their collective yards-per-carry average from the initial two games.
Finally, someone other than senior quarterback Denard Robinson was getting it done on the ground.
“We took a step forward in just getting off the ball in our running game and getting a good push up front, but we still need work,” Smith said. “We’ll just continue to strive in all areas.”
As is the case in such uneven matchups like the one between Michigan and Massachusetts on Saturday, the outcome was decided well before time expired in the Wolverines’ 63-13 victory.
That meant that Michigan was even able to get its backups in on the action. Redshirt freshman Justice Hayes and freshman Dennis Norfleet made their offensive debuts, they were two of seven total players to carry the ball on the afternoon.
But the focus was on squarely on Toussaint, who didn’t look like himself in his season debut against Air Force last week. In that game, the Youngstown, Ohio native managed just seven yards on eight carries, often hounded by defenders before even getting out of the backfield.
It was a far cry from the Toussaint that the Wolverines had grown familiar with by the end of last season, when he emerged as one of the better backs in the Big Ten.
Against the Minutemen, Toussaint played more like his 2011 self than the version from the Air Force game, totaling 87 yards and averaging 5.7 yards-per-carry. For an offense that’s searching for another threat to help take pressure off Robinson — as dynamic as he is, the coaching staff realizes he can’t carry such a heavy burden over the whole season — Toussaint’s rejuvenation was a welcome development.
“The more threats we have as an offense, the more dangerous we can be,” said fifth-year senior offensive lineman Patrick Omameh. “Everybody knows that we have Denard Robinson, who’s a special kind of player. The more pressure we can take off him, the better we’ll be as a team.”
Yet the way that Michigan coach Brady Hoke talked about it in his postgame press conference, you would’ve thought that the Wolverine backs did nothing on the ground.
With a dissatisfied, edgy tone, Hoke bemoaned the play of the offensive line, which, in his mind, was subpar. That was nothing different from the first two games of the season — the coach has been talking about needing more up front since the offensive dud against Alabama in the season opener.
Hoke’s tenor was more curious on Saturday because of how much better the running backs — and, by association, the offensive line — looked against the Minutemen. He said Toussaint looked only “okay,” and that he wished the runner would’ve been more decisive in going up field at certain times.
Part of the issue may be Saturday’s opponent. Massachusetts doesn’t represent the same quality of competition that the Wolverines have faced to this point, and that they will face as the season goes on. The true test of the line’s and the backs’ play may be next week against Notre Dame.
“That’s a big part of it,” Hoke said when asked about the importance of finding someone to take pressure off Robinson. “That’s why we need to block better in the traditional run plays with the running back … We’ve got to find more (playmakers).”
Then, unprompted, the coach mentioned needing better play from the line to have a running back be a playmaker. It was a clear reference to Toussaint, who, along with the rest of the backs on Saturday, finally looking comfortable.
But for Hoke, the traditional running game is in a similar place to Toussaint when he broke that tackle, suspended in motion. He’s still waiting for that burst forward.