Fitzgerald Toussaint was uncharacteristically gregarious on Tuesday, slapping backs, cracking jokes and smiles. But when the subject of last year’s game against Notre Dame arose, he stiffened.
Teammates point out that Toussaint, the redshirt junior running back, loves to dance, but he couldn’t dance with his teammates as they celebrated late into the night with the student section after their stunning 35-31 victory over the Fighting Irish. Toussaint watched. He was sidelined with a shoulder injury.
And the fact that he didn’t play, that he couldn’t help his teammates, still kills him.
“That’s exactly what I think about to this day,” Toussaint said on Tuesday. “I could’ve played.”
Last year’s Under The Lights game was a frenetic rush of lights and colors, pom poms and “Seven Nation Army.” On the field, it was a pinball game of turnovers and big plays, a battle to establish some — any — measure of rhythm.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he remembers thinking to himself that the game wasn’t like a normal game. It didn’t have any sort of continuity. It didn’t have Toussaint.
“The rhythm of the game wasn’t there anywhere,”Hoke said. “There wasn’t any momentum. Anywhere.”
Some of that stemmed from emotion, some from mistakes and fluke plays. But Hoke drew a connection between the game’s lack of momentum and the failure to establish a running game outside of senior quarterback Denard Robinson.
Toussaint sat as his fellow running backs sputtered. Stephen Hopkins, now a junior, went for just 10 yards, and he was the leader of the group. Fifth-year senior Vincent Smith rushed for three. Michael Shaw actually lost three yards.
“I was speechless,” Toussaint said. “It really hurt me to know I could’ve done something to help the team.”
Toussaint missed both the Tuesday and Wednesday practices in the week before the game, and he knew he couldn’t play. Still, he explained that sometimes, a football player must play through injury.
This year, Toussaint is healthy, but his play has lagged behind last season’s pace. Against Air Force, he ran for just seven yards, though he improved against Massachusetts, rushing for 85 yards and a touchdown.
Hoke and redshirt junior tackle Taylor Lewan have put much of the blame on the offensive line’s inability to spring Toussaint. Lewan said the line lacked an edge, and Hoke has tried to address that in practice.
“We have very physical practices, even during game week, you know, and that’s a demeanor and a mentality,” said offensive coordinator Al Borges. “Don’t expect them just to show up and all of a sudden be trained killers on game day if their mindset isn’t right during the week.”
Of course, Toussaint won’t be Notre Dame’s chief concern. Michigan’s past two games against Notre Dame have been dominated by Robinson. In 2010, he totaled more than 500 yards. Last year, without Toussaint to share the burden, he totaled nearly 450 yards and five touchdowns.
The Fighting Irish focused their defense on stopping Robinson last year, often sending a safety into the box or using both a linebacker and a safety to box him in.
“They were keenly aware of what Denard had done the year before,” Borges said. “They restructured their defense to stop him and force the issue with the passing game.”
Borges explained that every team tries to stop Robinson but “they don’t all have the ability to do it.”
Notre Dame’s defense, though, has proved capable. Last week, the Fighting Irish held Michigan State to just three points and its prolific running back, Le’Veon Bell, to just 77 yards. After watching film of that game, Hoke said he was surprised by the ability of Notre Dame’s front seven, led by one of the nation’s best linebackers, Manti Te’o.
“You knew they were good,” Hoke said. “But they were really good.”
The game could again hinge on Michigan’s ability to find continuity — typically, Robinson struggles when he doesn’t. Against the Fighting Irish last year, he gained 338 yards through the air, but also threw three interceptions and completed less than half of his passes. He struggled similarly against Alabama this year and Virginia Tech in last year’s Sugar Bowl.
Enter Toussaint. It will be up to the running back who loves to dance to establish some rhythm.