On Saturday, in the first minute of the second quarter against Purdue, redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint fell into the end zone from the one-yard line for the second time in the game.
It was already his fifth-career two-touchdown game, and the day was still young.
But it wasn’t all sunshine and roses for the struggling tailback, who finished with a meager 19 yards rushing on 17 carries.
“He got two touchdowns — if that’s not a good day, I don’t know what is,” joked senior quarterback Denard Robinson after the game. “He played well, and the offense played well. They kind of keyed on him a little more because last year he had a breakout game. They kind of upped the ante on that one.”
Indeed, Toussaint must have been licking his chops as he traveled to West Lafayette last weekend. In last season’s homecoming game against the Boilermakers, Toussaint picked up 170 yards on 20 carries. On one play, he took the pitch from quarterback Devin Gardner and made the Purdue defenders look like a pee wee squad as he cut to the sideline, then back to the middle of the field on a 59-yard touchdown run.
“They weren’t going to let him do that (again),” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “I mean, they were very concerned with taking that part of our offense away. Denard rushed for 235, so something’s got to give, and what gave was Denard.”
Robinson definitely benefited from the Purdue defense’s preoccupation with Toussaint in the backfield. The quarterback dashed for 9.8 yards per carry on Saturday, and his 235 rushing yards were second-most in his career and in Big Ten quarterback history, behind his legendary performance against Notre Dame two seasons ago (258 rushing yards, in addition to 244 passing yards).
“That game needed to be that way,” Hoke said. “That was the plan — get (Robinson) back running the football, feeling good, and then go from there.”
Still, there was at least some indication that coaches are concerned with the running backs’ lack of production in the offense so far this season. The only really solid game the tailbacks have produced was against FBS-newcomer Massachusetts, when Toussaint picked up 85 yards on 15 carries, and senior Vincent Smith and sophomore Thomas Rawls also got into the mix.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t (concerned),” Hoke said. “But I think up front, I thought those guys played pretty solid when you look at it. Their best game? No. But they played solid. We just have to keep making some improvements, you know, every day there.”
The offensive line was relatively happy with the way they played, regardless of Toussaint’s lack of production on the ground.
“Like I said, we obviously want to get (Toussaint) more yards,” said fifth-year senior center Elliott Mealer. “He’s a great player, and we need to get him out in space and let him show off his skills. But at the same time, 307 (total) rushing yards — I think that’s doing alright … The fact that we were able to let Denard do his thing, like I said, we have that luxury.”
At some points in the Monday press conference, though, Mealer contradicted himself. After saying he thought the offensive line did alright, he also mentioned that the goal of the offensive line is to block for the tailback, which the offensive line did not do particularly well on Saturday.
“We always block for the tailback,” Mealer said. “Other than that, you never know what Denard’s going to do. So whether it’s a pass or read option, he’s able to kind of make his own magic happen. I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but he makes us look good.”
If Robinson is making his own plays and Toussaint is still not producing, perhaps there is room for improvement along the offensive line. But redshirt junior tackle Taylor Lewan said he was proud of how the offensive line played last weekend, and he praised its play more than he typically does.
“This offensive line is special, and we’re capable of doing all the things that we did on Saturday, and better,” Lewan said. “Ricky Barnum is a very athletic guard. Patrick Omamaeh — this is his fourth year starting. Schofield — he’s been playing guard, and now he’s exceling at tackle. Elliott Mealer, stepping up to the challenge of (replacing) Dave Molk.
“These guys want to be the best they could possibly be.”