'We've hit our stride': Michigan's run game kicks into higher gear
Ann Arbor — It wasn’t one tweak and — voila! — Michigan suddenly has a defense-draining run game.
The Wolverines rushed for 303 yards in their 45-14 win over Notre Dame last weekend, focusing on the run initially because of the heavy rain and win while making only 14 pass attempts. They’ve gained 739 yards rushing and scored nine touchdowns in their last three games.
As the 14th-ranked Wolverines prepare to play at Maryland (3-5, 1-4 Big Ten) on Saturday, they surely know that the Terps gave up 321 rushing yards and four touchdowns to Minnesota a week ago.
Michigan now has a one-two punch with Zach Charbonnet, who rushed for 74 yards and two touchdowns against Notre Dame, and Hassan Haskins, the former linebacker-turned-running back who gained 149 yards on 20 carries. Tru Wilson also is fully recovered from a broken right hand that held him out early in the season, and he scored on a 27-yard touchdown run against the Irish.
But there are a few other key components, as well. The offensive line has made considerable improvement the last few games, particularly center Cesar Ruiz, who graded out the highest among the lineman. And then there’s Shea Patterson. The quarterback also is finally healthy, which allows him to be more active as a run threat who attracts additional attention from the defense and opens the way for the running backs, as well.
“I do think we’ve hit our stride running the football now,” offensive line coach Ed Warinner said Wednesday. “We’ve got some confidence. We’ve gotten a couple good games out of Hassan, and Zach has been consistent. You start to have more confidence in the run game. As the weather in the late fall here gets worse, that’s going to be a positive.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh earlier this week praised the offensive line blocking, and the blocking from the tight ends, receivers and running backs. He also credited the improvement of Haskins and Charbonnet and Wilson, and how Patterson enhances the run game.
“It was especially important in this game and something we talked about and Shea embraced,” Harbaugh said. “When (you have) that quarterback as a potential threat or a runner is key. I thought Shea was really fast, too (against the Irish). I thought it was his fastest game he’s played. He was quick and fast. It helped a lot.”
Patterson runs the show, but it all starts with the offensive line. And having an athletic center like Ruiz also helps a lot.
“He’s played consistent since I’ve been here,” said Warinner, who is in his second season with the Wolverines. “He had a really good game. He’s good in space. We tease him ‘Ces in space.’ We joke around about that.
“We got into a situation where the defenses they were playing we were able to pull him some and get him on the perimeter and he likes doing that. He’s very athletic for a big offensive lineman. He made some nice plays at the second level.”
Having Patterson fully healthy makes a considerable difference in how offensive coordinator Josh Gattis runs the offense and call plays.
“He’s nifty when he’s running around in the pocket,” Warinner said. “He made some plays the other day, extending. He’s always been good at that. In the run game, when he’s healthy, we’ve used him as an element in the read option and he’s had a lot of success doing that. We had that one nice play down there in the red zone and got to the 2. He’s very quick and very decisive on those type of things. So that’s been an added asset. Being healthy, you don’t feel you’re putting him at risk.”
On Wilson’s 27-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, he had some downfield blocking from Patterson.
“I feel like that’s happened in practice,” Wilson said. “I’ve cut it back and cut it outside and he’s noticed it and sprinted up. Coach Jay (Harbaugh) said that’s really Russell Wilson-esque of him. You see Russell Wilson do that 10 times a game and really throw his body out there. That’s a really good comparison. That’s my fantasy quarterback, too.”
As the Michigan offense begins to click heading into the final month of the regular season, Wilson said the fact Patterson is finally fully healthy makes an enormous difference.
“I feel like he’s the best there is. He’s the man,” Wilson said. “Physically, mentally, his confidence is at a high. He’s throwing the ball as good as can be. I thought he threw the ball really well for it being as rainy as it was. I think he’s the man and can do it all.”
Wilson has raised his standards for Haskins’ play and wants to see him do more.
“Especially (when he played) linebacker, he would come down and hit somebody. I’m just waiting for that — hit somebody, they fall on their back and he runs,” Wilson said of Haskins. “You’ve seen him break some crazy tackles. He’s ballin' right now.”
Haskins leaped over a defender in the Notre Dame game and Wilson was asked why he expects more from his teammate.
“I’m never going to be content with Hassan,” Wilson said, smiling. “I’m going to keep telling him do more — jump over two guys at one time.”
The bar has clearly been raised for Michigan's run game.
Michigan at Maryland
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium, College Park, Md.
Records: No. 14 Michigan 6-2, 3-2 Big Ten; Maryland 3-5, 1-4
Line: Michigan by 21