Wolverines hope running game back on solid ground
Ann Arbor — The Michigan offensive players had to ask themselves a question.
Fifth-year senior fullback Khalid Hill said the group, heading into the latter part of the season, recently posed the question that they earnestly discussed: What does this offense want its identity to be?
“Our identity is to run the ball, and we need to always be able to do that,” Hill said this week. “Running the ball opens up the pass and those two things complement each other very well.”
fter a decent start to the season, the run game slipped a bit three of the last five games. The Wolverines had 139 rushing yards on 44 attempts at Purdue, then 102 on 39 attempts against Michigan State, and 103 on 42 carries at Penn State.
As they make the final push for tonight’s game against Minnesota at Michigan Stadium, the Wolverines are feeling good about themselves after rushing for a season-best 334 yards, featuring two, 100-yard rushers, Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac, against Rutgers. Having the running game clicking also is vital considering the Wolverines will likely be led by redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peters making his first start.
Not only did the backs run hard, but the offensive line had its best game of the season, the fullbacks blocked well, as did the tight ends.
“There’s been a lot backlash and talk of the O-line lately,” center Patrick Kugler said earlier this week. “We took it upon ourselves that we were going to win this game. We did a pretty good job. No sacks, season high in rushing yards. Just try and keep that going.”
He said the offensive line has been inspired by the backs.
“When you have a back that runs hard, you want to block harder for them,” Kugler said.
Hill said the recent improvements have been, in part, the result of stepping back and doing some self-searching.
“Coach (Jim) Harbaugh asked us what our identity was after the first couple of games,” said Hill, who scored on a one-yard touchdown run against Rutgers. “We just needed to get back to the fundamentals.”
Last season, Hill led the team with 13 touchdowns, including 10 rushing, which tied with running back De’Veon Smith. The touchdown against the Scarlet Knights last Saturday was his second of the season.
“He’s got a knack of scoring the ball in those tight goal-line type of plays,” Harbaugh said. “That’s special when you convert those types of plays.”
Harbaugh was particularly pleased with the way the fullbacks blocked against Rutgers, especially freshman Ben Mason who blocked his man into the end zone opening a big hole for Karan Higdon on a 10-yard touchdown run.
“Everybody is working to make those big blocks,” Hill said. “When you open holes, the running backs hit them and score, so it’s a good feeling as an offense when you work together and get the job done. We’ve been doing it a lot more lately and need to continue to do it.”
Center Patrick Kugler raved this week about the Wolverines’ fullbacks, from Henry Poggi to Hill to Mason. He said he considers all the fullbacks honorary members of the offensive line, willing to take a backseat in terms of the spotlight while the skill-position players tend to grab the headlines.
“They like to eat like us, too,” Kugler said, laughing. “They’re in the trenches like we are.”
Hill begged to differ, though. He considers himself more of a running back.
“(Tight end) Sean McKeon was talking about how fullbacks have to run at people and hit them two steps away, so you have to be able to be under control and hit with velocity when you do that,” he said.
“It’s different from what an offensive lineman does because you need a unique skillset to come out of the backfield and hit somebody. Us fullbacks are kind of different in how much we like contact. I’m not saying offensive linemen have it easy, though. I used to play tight end and thought it was easier to block when the guy is basically an inch in front of you.”
Hill has high hopes for Mason. “Ben is going to be a great athlete these next few years and probably will be better than all the fullbacks we have here now,” he said.
Michigan also got running back Chris Evans into the receiving game last week with one catch from Peters for a 20-yard touchdown, in addition to his five carries for 29 yards. Redshirt freshman Kareem Walker was the third-leading back against Rutgers with six carries for 34 yards and a touchdown.
Harbaugh said to expect to see more of “6” this season.
“He’s demonstrated good hard running style,” Harbaugh said.
“He’s the aggressor, not the aggresse. I like that he’s coming through piles.”
With four regular-season games left, beginning with Minnesota under the lights, Michigan will find out if its offense finally has the answers and if the Wolverines can establish consistency with its run game.
Minnesota at Michigan
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
Records: Minnesota 4-4, 1-4 Big Ten; Michigan 6-2, 3-2
Line: Michigan by 15