Rediscovering run game vital for Wolverines

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

While Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock has thrown for 777 yards the last two games, the rushing game has dropped off.

Rudock accounted for 64 of the 141 rushing yards against Indiana in double overtime last week. After rushing for 200 or more yards in four of five games from Weeks 2-6 (the fifth was 198 yards), the Wolverines have averaged 120 yards rushing the last four games.

The last two games, of course, have been all about Rudock and his six touchdown passes at Indiana and two against Rutgers.

As the Wolverines finalize plans for Penn State on Saturday at Beaver Stadium, they’re going to have to find some balance against a team that leads the nation in sacks with 42 and is second nationally in tackles for loss, averaging 9.3 a game.

For the most part, Rudock has stayed off the ground this season as Michigan has allowed 14 sacks. But the Nittany Lions lead the Big Ten in pass defense, allowing an average 159 yards, while Michigan ranks No. 2 at 165.5 yards.

Lead back De’Veon Smith is averaging 58.2 yards a game and had 58 yards against Indiana. Drake Johnson is averaging 23.6 yards and had only two yards on four carries last Saturday. Fullback Sione Houma has been used as a tailback, and it’s unclear the status of Derrick Green, who is “working through something,” according to coach Jim Harbaugh.

Michigan center Graham Glasgow said the offensive line shoulders much of the blame and said improved technique was on the practice agenda this week.

“That just comes down to us needing to tighten our technique and just play lower. I think once we do that the run yards will come,” Glasgow said, adding that technique suffers as the season wears on.

“I would say a little bit. The later you get in the season it gets a little harder to focus on the little stuff like that, but once you have an eye-opening game like (Indiana), that’s when it needs to come to the forefront and be a focal point.”

With two regular-season games remaining, rediscovering the run game is critical.

Tackle Erik Magnuson said the pad level was too high — a technique issue — at Indiana.

“You start losing your fundamentals,” Magnuson said. “We’ve been focusing on that. We’ll fix it.”

Penn State boasts the fourth-ranked defense in the Big Ten and is led by senior defensive end Carl Nassib, a former walk-on who leads the country in sacks (15.5) and tackles for loss (19.5).

“Their defensive line is really good, probably the best front seven that we’ve played all year,” Magnuson said, before singling out Nassib. “The numbers (he has posted) speak for themselves.”

Helpful bye

Penn State’s bye last week helped freshman running back Saquon Barkley, who has dealt with an ankle injury this season. Barkley is averaging 104.5 yards rushing and has eight total touchdowns.

“He’s still been productive and still playing well, but he’s not 100 percent,” Penn State coach James Franklin said this week. “I think the bye week for him was probably very important to get him closer back to 100 percent as he possibly can be.

“He’s a dynamic player and doesn’t necessarily physically or mentally look like a freshman at times. He’s been a difference-maker for us. We want to try to give him opportunities to impact the game.”

Preparing for Lewis

Michigan cornerback Jourdan Lewis leads the nation in passes defended, averaging 2.0 a game and has the Michigan season record with 20 pass breakups this season.

“He’s really good,” Franklin said. “If you look at some of the analytics companies out there, there’s people that says he’s the most productive, best corner in the country. Typically, the game plan with them is he’s matched up with the best receiver.

“I read some things … where that’s a big deal for him. He’s not real happy if he’s not matched up against who’s considered to be their best wide receiver each week. And he’s done a really good job of that.”

Triple threat

Michigan redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers is a three-way threat and has played 809 snaps this season, averaging more than 80 per game. Of those snaps, 150 have come on special teams and 24 on offense — his primary role is on defense.

But Franklin expects to see Peppers on offense, as well.

“They’re going to try to get his hands on the ball,” Franklin said. “Whether it’s as a receiver or a running back, he’s an explosive guy. Same thing on special teams. As a returner, he’s able to impact the game in that area.

“And then on defense they play him all over the place. They play him at safety, they play him at nickel, they play him at corner, they play him at outside linebacker. He plays all these different roles for them. That’s kind of who they are on defense, they play a lot of different packages.”