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Niyo: UM, Harbaugh find their identity on the ground

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan running back Karan Higdon runs for extra yardage in the first quarter.

Ann Arbor — Jim Harbaugh knows the critics are out there, and he really doesn’t have to go very far to find them. One of them lives next door, as a matter of fact.

“The ol’ ball coach,” he calls his neighbor. “Jack Avon Harbaugh.”

And if you’re looking for the moment Michigan’s head coach found something that clicked offensively this season, when the Wolverines finally turned a corner and started looking more like one of those teams you expect to see with James Joseph Harbaugh on the sideline, well, you might as well start there.

“Probably when it started happening was when a guy by the name of Jack Harbaugh said, ‘Why aren’t you running the counter more?’ ” Harbaugh said, smiling, after his Wolverines had finished manhandling Minnesota on Saturday night at Michigan Stadium.

Michigan piled up a season-high 371 rushing yards in the 33-10 victory over the Gophers, and there was nothing counterintuitive about any of it, as the Wolverines ran at will on a night the weather all but called for it. More than two-thirds of those rushing yards came in the first half, too, as Harbaugh & Co. made their intentions clear early on in what he later described as a “stalwart performance” and “a game for the ages, if you’re an offensive lineman.”

“I looked up at one point and the statistics looked like we were Air Force,” he said. “I thought we were Air Force, the way we were running the ball. I thought we were Western Kentucky back in the early-90’s under Jack Harbaugh.”

Or maybe Stanford in the late-2000s, or even the San Francisco 49ers earlier this decade.

Or maybe not. This Michigan team has a long way to go merit those comparisons, obviously, and truer tests to come in November against Wisconsin and Ohio State. But this last month certainly is an encouraging sign if you were among those wondering when — or if — the Wolverines would ever find their identity this season.

So they got that goin’ for them

Michigan rushed for 271 yards against Indiana and 334 against Rutgers and now 371 on the backs of Minnesota, leaving behind a trail of greasy, grimy Gopher guts in the time it took Carl Spackler to play 18 holes. In the middle of that, of course, there was a meager 103-yard outing under the lights at Penn State, but even in that humbling loss, Michigan’s trio of running backs averaged nearly 4 yards a carry and punched two into the end zone.

And watching them hammer away with three-tight end sets Saturday, watching them run power plays that P.J. Fleck’s defense seemed powerless to stop, and watching them dial up that split counter play again and again — the Ol’ Ball Coach was on to something, all right — that surely was a sight for sore eyes.

“I’ve never seen that many plus-50 yard runs in one game, any team I’ve ever coached,” Harbaugh said. “That was quite the performance.”

The record books seemed to agree.

It takes some doing, doing something that hasn’t been done in nearly 140 years of history. And the backfield tandem of Karan Higdon and Chris Evans nearly did that Saturday night. Never has Michigan had two running backs top 200 yards rushing in the same game, and while Higdon finished with 200 on 16 carries, Evans had to settle for 191 on 13 tries, as Harbaugh pulled his starters for a final fourth-quarter drive.

That’s still just the second time in school history one back has topped 200 while another ran for 100 or more. And it’s the first time since 1975 that the Wolverines have had a pair of running backs rush for 100 yards in consecutive games. The three long touchdown runs — 77, 60 and 67 yards — were the three longest plays from scrimmage for the Wolverines all season. And if you go through Michigan archives dating to 1949, you won’t find a game where they had two touchdown runs of 60-plus yards, let alone three.

The credit for that was shared all around, from an offensive line that included a true freshman (Cesar Ruiz) making his first career start at right guard to the tight ends and fullbacks that turned gap blocks into gaping holes.

Ben Bredeson and Khalid Hill paved the way for Higdon to race untouched 77 yards for his first touchdown late in the first quarter Saturday — the Wolverines’ longest TD run since 2012. And while there were some missed assignments in pass protection against Minnesota’s stunting front, Harbaugh, off the top of his head, couldn’t think of a missed block.

“It’s never as good as you think it is, so there’ll probably be a few,” he said. “But I thought it was really, really good.”

Taking a pass on the pass

And that’s really, really important as the Wolverines try to finish the season better than they did a year ago, even if the Big Ten title still seems out of reach.

The defense is more than capable of finishing with a flourish, and proved it again Saturday, holding Minnesota to 164 total yards, including a minus-33 total in the third quarter. But the offense — lacking precision and full of indecision — had to figure out how to get out of its own way.

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“So we’ve just been really focusing on the run game,” said left tackle Mason Cole, a senior co-captain. “We know we’re gonna have to run the ball to win.”

They also knew this was Brandon Peters’ first career start at quarterback Saturday night. But after getting things started with a few nice completions on Michigan’s opening drive, including a 20-yard throwback pass to tight end Sean McKeon for a touchdown, there wasn’t much to critique.

The redshirt freshman finished 8-of-13 for 56 yards and a touchdown, but by the time the game was over, Harbaugh’s biggest complaint was that there wasn’t enough room on the sideline for his quarterback to throw between series. That was a problem, he said, because there were entire drives when he didn’t even attempt a pass.

Like that four-play, 91-yard touchdown drive in the middle of the second quarter that practically put the game out of reach at 20-7. After a short gain to start the series, Higdon broke free for a 12-yard gain. Then, after the Gophers were forced to call a timeout when Michigan resurrected that beloved “train” formation from last season, it was Evans’ turn. He got loose for 18 yards on the next play, then took the next handoff and took it 60 yards for the score.

Afterward, he couldn’t even remember what he play call was, he said, “I just knew that a running back’s job is to make people miss.”

And that’s part of it, for sure.

“I think the backs are doing a really good job making the blocks right,” Harbaugh said. “The way they’re seeing things and cutting, it’s impressive.”

No argument here. None from his neighbor, either, I’d imagine.