Niyo: Mason shows he can do it all for Wolverines

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan tight end Nick Eubanks, left, and fullback Ben Mason celebrate Mason's touchdown in the second quarter.

Ann Arbor — Devin Bush Jr. said he’d never seen it before. Karan Higdon couldn’t believe his eyes. Cesar Ruiz said he needed to see a replay just to be sure.

And Jim Harbaugh? Well, for Michigan's head coach, this no doubt was a sight to behold.

“Yeah, he looked excited,” said Ben Mason, the fullback who enjoys collisions almost as much as his coach enjoys homecoming.

Harbaugh certainly wasn’t alone, though, as Shea Patterson took the snap on Michigan’s second play from scrimmage Saturday against Maryland, faked a handoff to Higdon, then rolled right and dumped a short pass to Mason in the right flat.

Mason turned his body, saw cornerback Darnell Savage Jr. lowering his shoulder to make a tackle and then did what he says came naturally: He hurdled the defender, turning an innocent play into a "SportsCenter" highlight.

“It kind of just happened, to be honest,” Mason said. “Next thing I knew I was past him.”

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And by the time the Terrapins brought him down after a 15-yard gain, the Michigan Stadium crowd was roaring in unison with Mason’s teammates.

“He made it happen, man,” Higdon said. “Everybody got hyped. It was amazing to see.”

Yeah, it was, seeing that kind of athleticism from a 255-pound fullback.

“I’ve never, ever seen that before in my life,” laughed Bush, the Wolverines’ junior linebacker. “Never, ever.”

Ruiz, the center who helps pave the way for Mason’s fullback dives, said he’d seen it once before on Mason’s Connecticut high school highlight reel.

“But I didn’t think I’d see it again,” Ruiz added, smiling.

'One of a kind'

So when he did Saturday — “I saw out the corner of my eye,” Ruiz said — he had to sneak a peek at the replay on the scoreboard between plays “just to make sure it was what I saw.”

It was, indeed. And in the bigger picture, what we’re seeing now is more of what we all expected from Harbaugh’s heavy-set offenses at Michigan, leaning on tight ends and featuring fullbacks like few other programs in college football.

A few weeks ago, Mason scored three touchdowns in the rout of Nebraska — the most for a Michigan fullback in a game in 30 years. Saturday, he slammed home his fifth TD of the season — tied for the team high with Higdon — and then served as a decoy as Patterson found another fullback, fifth-year senior Jared Wangler, for a 7-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter.

“That was an awesome moment for the team,” Mason said of Wangler’s score, which came a week after he made his first career catch in the comeback at Northwestern. “I mean, he’s put so much effort and time into this program. So to see him get into the end zone was an incredible feeling for everyone.”

Again, though, as Mason’s role grows, so do the possibilities for this offense, which piled up 465 yards Saturday and — aided by another stifling performance from the nation’s top-ranked defense — dominated time of possession.

Michigan put together three drives of 10 plays or more before halftime, including an 11-play, 95-yard effort early in the second quarter shortly after Maryland had taken a 7-3 lead on a 98-yard kickoff return.

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Mason began that drive with a 6-yard carry to give Patterson some breathing room backed up against his own goal line. The sophomore fullback ended it by exploding through the tackle of Maryland linebacker Tre Watson at the goal line.

It’s the kind of play that earned “Bench” Mason the team’s “toughest player” award a year ago as a true freshman. And it’s the sort of result that teammates have come to expect, a collision that reopened a cut on the bridge of Mason’s nose and left him trickling blood off and on the rest of the afternoon.

“That man is one of a kind — truly unique,” guard Stephen Spanellis said of Mason, whose face was bandaged up when he met with the media after the game. “And you can just see it in his eyes that he wants to shove his face into somebody else’s face, at full speed. He doesn’t really have any reservations about it, throwing his body on the line.”

Or into it, as it were.

'Expanding package'

But as the Wolverines brace for the toughest part of their schedule, beginning with next weekend's prime-time tilt against Wisconsin in Ann Arbor, opponents are now faced with another wrinkle or two.

Patterson’s ability to extend plays with his legs — and to throw accurately on the run — is an element Michigan simply didn’t have a year ago. But the play-action passing game has added another dimension now — “I just think they have to respect him in the run game,” Patterson says — with Mason’s snap counts rising and his role shifting from play to play.

He lined up as the tailback at times Saturday — Wangler’s touchdown catch came off a play-action fake to Mason in the backfield — and his mere presence forced Maryland to add a fifth and sixth defensive lineman, at times.

“He’s about to where he’s doing everything,” Harbaugh said. “He’s got the ability to do a lot. Catch the ball out of the backfield, block, run. It’s an expanding package for Ben.”

Which is more than fine, if you ask Mason. In fact, it’s expected.

“To be honest,” he said, “I think a fullback is somebody that should be able to do a bunch of different things.”

And in this case, maybe seeing is believing.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo