It’s hard to push the Michigan football team around — especially in the red zone.
On both sides of the ball, the Wolverines’ line play has been somewhat of a strength this season. And Michigan has had success punching the ball into the end zone, as well as preventing opposing offenses from doing the same.
In Michigan’s 65-21 win over Bowling Green on Saturday, two of the Falcon touchdowns came on fourth-and-goal situations after the Wolverines stopped them short on the first three downs inside the five-yard line.
Bowling Green resorted to the Wildcat formation and freshman running back Jordan Hopgood took a direct snap — the first time, he barely scored and the second time, it took an extra effort to get around Michigan’s wall of defensive players.
“We could not run the football, and really, even when we scored on some of those goal line plays, we were a little bit lucky,” Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson said after the game. “It was because of a great individual effort in the backfield; it’s not because we have people blocked up front or we created a push at the line of scrimmage. They completely controlled us up front. To be honest with you, that was our biggest concern coming into the game.”
All the offensive line did was pave the way for 466 rushing yards and eight red zone touchdowns — including six on the ground. After Saturday, Michigan’s red zone touchdown efficiency is 89 percent — the team has scored touchdowns on 17 of 19 trips.
“Anytime we get close to that end zone, as an offensive line, we’re all talking to each other, telling each other, ‘We gotta get in. We gotta get in,’ ” fifth-year senior offensive lineman Steve Schilling said. “We don’t want to settle for field goals. We want seven points every time we’re on the field.”
Last season, the Wolverines struggled to score touchdowns inside the 20. Michigan cashed in its red zone trips at a 63-percent clip and scored touchdowns just 53-percent of the time. The Wolverines are now scoring at will in the red zone and stopping their opponents too.
As redshirt junior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen sees it, it all starts up front.
“We’re really good at getting off the ball, and we really take pride in not getting pushed backwards,” he said.
Running away with it: It may have been hard to keep track of which running back was on the field by the end of Saturday’s game.
Nine players carried the ball 56 times. Sophomore Vincent Smith and junior Mike Shaw each lead the team with 12 carries each.
Michigan’s leading rushers, however, were sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson who ran for 129 yards on five carries, and redshirt freshman running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, who carried the ball six times for 129 yards.
The efficient group effort resulted in 466 yards on the ground.
But the takeaway might be that Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez was finally able to play more of his running backs. Saturday marked the season debuts of Toussaint and redshirt sophomore Mike Cox.
“I think all of my guys are pretty good,” running backs coach Fred Jackson said. “I just got to put them in situations where they can have some success so I can examine what they’re doing.”
Freshman Stephen Hopkins was the first to spell usual starters Smith and Shaw, and he began on the right foot. But a late first quarter fumble had him benched for quite some time.
When Toussaint got his chance late midway through the fourth quarter, he broke through the line of scrimmage for a 61-yard run — before he was caught from behind on the five-yard line. Toussaint didn’t play in the first three games of the season because of a knee injury. Jackson doesn’t think that he’s back to full strength just yet.
“You usually don’t catch him from behind, I’ll put it that way,” Jackson said. “Fitz can run.”
Cox also broke a long run of his own. He finished with 56 yards on just six carries — including a 35-yard dash.
It remains to be seen whether six different running backs will receive carries when Big Ten play starts next week. But with a large lead in hand, Michigan gave a few of its runners some valuable experience.
With Robinson out of the game for precautionary reasons due to a minor injury, the running backs shined. Their success could help Robinson down the road.
“When you can line up and run the football, you open up the passing lanes for throwing and you open up so much more,” quarterbacks coach Rod Smith said.
Injury update: With another game came another Robinson injury scare.
Near the end of a 46-yard run down the left sideline, Robinson was caught from behind and tackled out of bounds. He came down hard on his left knee. When Robinson came out of the locker room to start the second half, he had the knee heavily wrapped and was seen jogging on the sidelines.
“He’s fine,” Smith said. “He just banged himself up a little bit on that last run. He actually could’ve went back in. But we decided not to, let him rest the rest of the half and then if we needed to come back with him we could.”
Shaw also injured himself blocking down field for Vincent Smith. After the game, Rodriguez said he was fine. And sophomore quarterback Tate Forcier, who injured his knee, said he was fine after the game.