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Michigan's run game sputters after roaring start, in need of 'some improvements'

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Michigan’s defense has been getting beaten up the last couple weeks by opposing offenses, not to mention media and fans. Don’t look now, but the Wolverines’ run game is right up there in justifiable criticism.

This was considered the best position group of the offense entering this season with three veterans — Hassan Haskins, Zach Charbonnet and Chris Evans — and speedy freshman Blake Corum. But since the season-opening, take-a-bow performance by the unit, it’s been in rapid decline.

Against Minnesota in the opener, the Wolverines rushed for 256 yards on 31 carries, an 8.3 yards-per-carry average, and five touchdowns. The backs were responsible for 199 yards on 21 carries and four touchdowns. That was the high that — from the way things are going now — likely will be an unreachable benchmark the rest of the season unless something changes.

Michigan running back Zach Charbonnet had one carry for 4 yards against Indiana.

A week later in the loss to Michigan State, the Wolverines gained 152 yards on 34 carries, but the running back production was down significantly as 84 of those yards were from the four backs on a combined 21 carries. In the 38-21 loss to Indiana on Saturday at Memorial Stadium, Michigan finished with 18 carries for 13 yards, including sack yardage, and the four backs combined for 25 yards on 12 carries. This came against a Hoosiers run defense that ranked 10th in the Big Ten entering the game and had allowed 185.5 yards rushing in their previous two contests.

It was the worst rushing total for the Wolverines during coach Jim Harbaugh's tenure and lowest output since they produced 40 yards on 19 carries in the Big Ten opener at Wisconsin last season. Michigan ranks 81st nationally (out of 123 teams) in rushing, averaging 140.3 yards. This is another piece explaining why the Wolverines are 1-2 in this abbreviated nine-game season.

Running backs coach Jay Harbaugh, as recently as last week's radio show, said his four-back rotation is the game plan.

“Don’t anticipate anything changing in that regard,” Harbaugh said last week.

And yet, a four-back rotation is not yielding consistent results. Sure, the offensive line is an issue. Line coach Ed Warinner had to replace four starters and if that wasn’t a big enough revamping, he had two tweak the line again Saturday with tackles Ryan Hayes and Jalen Mayfield out with injuries.

Against Indiana, sophomore Karsen Barnhart filled in at left tackle and freshman Zak Zinter was inserted at right guard for senior Andrew Stueber, who moved to right tackle.

“The run game we have to make some improvements, no question about it,” Jim Harbaugh said after the game. “The offensive line was very much reshuffled. I thought guys did extremely well. All the things — slow start, playing from behind, having some passes dropped, forcing some things toward the end, all those things (need to be fixed).”

Through three games, Haskins leads the team with 157 yards on 20 carries and has three touchdowns. He ranks 137th in the nation in rushing yards per game, averaging 52.3 yards. The Wolverines’ second-leading rusher is quarterback Joe Milton with 102 yards and a score on 25 carries, which seems problematic since there’s a four-back rotation.

Twitter: @chengelis