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Michigan running back Karan Higdon gives all the credit to the offensive line. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News

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Ann Arbor — If. If. If. Two letters that make up one tiny word that can change someone’s life trajectory in a big way.

If Karan Higdon had reached 1,000 yards rushing last season, there’s a very good chance he would not be here now leading fifth-ranked Michigan in rushing with 831 yards and six touchdowns. If he had made it to 1,000 yards, he could be trying to make it somewhere as a professional football player.

Instead, he’s had six 100-yard rushing games, including all five played against Big Ten teams and is eighth in the NCAA in rushing per game, averaging 118.7 yards as he and the Wolverines prepare for Saturday’s game against Penn State.

If Higdon had reached 1,000 yards rushing last season, he has said he considered that the magic number to make himself appealing to NFL teams. But he was six yards shy and returned for his final season of eligibility. If he had not come back, he wouldn’t be one of 20 semifinalists — one of seven running backs — for the Maxwell Award given to the Collegiate Player of the Year.

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And if he had not returned, he would never have experienced the honor of being elected a co-captain by his teammates as he was before the start of the season.

Higdon has never looked back and is making the most of his increased work load this season for the Wolverines, who are 7-1 overall and on a seven-game winning streak since losing to Notre Dame in the season opener. They lead the Big Ten East Division at 5-0 with four games remaining in the regular season.

“I never second guess myself,” Higdon said Monday. “I made the decision, and it’s up to me to make it a right decision.

“I’ve made it a right decision.”

And how has he done that?

“Just my production. The relationship I’ve increased with my teammates, the coaches,” Higdon said. “And I’m around a great group of guys now. We’re playing some great football right now and there’s nothing more rewarding than that.”

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has praised Higdon for his ability to run outside runs and run inside. He can pass protect, which was a focus of his during the offseason when he gained muscle to become not only a stronger runner but stronger in protection. And Harbaugh trusts him with the ball, not a small thing for a coach.

“He’ a very mature guy,” Harbaugh said Monday. “He’s very goal-oriented. He understands the benefit of hard work. He’s been a very good example for the entire team as a leader, and he has played tough in practices and in games, which has also has been something other people have rallied around.”

Michigan is 11-0 when Higdon has rushed for 100 yards or more. He gives all the credit to the offensive line, which has been a big part of the offensive production this season, not to mention Michigan ranking seventh nationally in time of possession (34:17). The Wolverines are getting first downs now on the ground, extending drives, using the clock late in games, something they haven’t been able to do on a consistent basis for several seasons.

For his part, Higdon said he is being more patient as a runner and being more of a playmaker. He is averaging 5.4 yards a carry and had a long this season of 67 yards when he scored against Western Michigan. Against Michigan State in the Wolverines’ last game before the bye last Saturday, Higdon rushed for 144 yards on a career-high 33 carries against the nation’s top-ranked rush defense.

“Credit to the guys in front of me,” Higdon said of the offensive line. “Just trusting what they’re doing, trusting the holes that they’re opening up and just following my talent, trusting the play-calling and just doing my job.”

His teammates have appreciated not only his role as a captain but his work ethic and what he has done on the field.

“He’s a captain, he’s a great player,” Michigan defensive tackle Carlo Kemp said. “He just runs so violently. That’s how I like to describe him. When he runs, he’s turning his feet. If you watch, I think he’s always falling forward. When he gets the ball and you watch it on the screen, it’s just like, keep handing him the ball off, because he’s going to make something happen.

“He just has it in his heart that he’s going to keep going and he takes it upon himself like, ‘Let me be the guy that gets the play going. Let me the guy that gets the drive going.’ It’s just fun watching him run.”

And if he didn't come back, well, they wouldn't have the chance to watch him run.

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis
 

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