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Michigan Wolverines’ Run Game Needs to Find Balance

Photo: Andy Shippy

Through seven games, Michigan’s run-game has been good for the big play–the ones that spectators love to see.

Ty Isaac burst for a 76-yard touchdown during the Wolverines’ 28-7 win over UNLV. De’Veon Smith had a now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t-60-yarder during the Wolverines’ 31-0 throttling of BYU.

Those types of carries are hallmarks of a dominant backfield.

And so far, coach Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines have the Big Ten’s No. 6-ranked rushing offense, averaging 181.4 yards per game. That clip’s up roughly 20 yards from a year ago, when the Wolverines had the No. 77-ranked rushing offense in the FBS, and it’s a sure sign of improvement.

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Michigan junior De’Veon Smith is trying to move past a bad ankle. Photo: Andy Shippy

However, Michigan still needs work, both in the backfield and on the offensive line. Prior to the bye week, Smith said backs were looking to improve on finding their “landmarks.” During that same week, fifth-year-senior center Graham Glasgow said something along the lines of “we have to get better.”

Both will be crucial steps on the path to more.

Teams such as Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State have had great success in the Big Ten–a league that’s predicated on the run. Passing helps, but an effective ground-game is almost always part of the conference champion’s arsenal.

Ask them. They’ll confirm.

Needless to say, Halloween weekend serves as important transition for the Wolverines. They’ll either gear up their running backs–and they’ll later face lower-tier rush defenses vs. Rutgers, Indiana and Penn State–or they’ll prepare for an “almost there” finish to the season.

The Wolverines are making strides, but not quickly enough to truly threaten in 2015. At 5-2 (2-1 B1G), Harbaugh’s already equaled Brady Hoke’s win total from 2014. This year has turned into one of hell of a starting point.

But because of that, expectations have become a bit high in Ann Arbor.

Yeah, they’re ready to compete for something more than a pat on the back this year. And sure, they’re better than expected. But the Wolverines’ backfield needs to perform better, and their O-line needs to avoid the path of regression–especially since it’s come so far within the past three months.

Taking advantage of a vulnerable Minnesota defense would give the Wolverines a boost in confidence as they prepare for their season-ending battle with Ohio State. If they fail to control the line of scrimmage and run the ball, they’ll lose to the Buckeyes, who have the Big Ten’s No. 10-ranked rushing defense (151.9 YPG, 8 TD).  That’s just one behind the Gophers, who, at No. 9 in the league, have given up 151.4 yards per game and a total of seven touchdowns.

As of now, Michigan has the No. 63-ranked rushing offense in the nation. That’s a 14-place jump from 2014. On top of that, the Wolverines have already matched their previous season total with 17 touchdowns this fall. To throw it back even further, take a look at Michigan’s numbers from 2013, when it had the No. 103-ranked rushing offense (125 YPG).

Progression, no doubt. Contention? Not quite yet.

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Drake Johnson gives the Wolverines speed to the outside. But power up the middle is also needed. Michigan has yet find a happy medium this fall. Photo: Andy Shippy

With a better run-game, Michigan could have downed Michigan State. But we’re talking about the same run-game that’s out-rushed Buckeyes star Ezekiel Elliott by just 140 yards; it’s the same one that has just four more touchdowns than the Heisman-hopeful. Not sure where that fits into the whole equation, but it’s a startling stat that’s worthy of mention.

With that beings said, focusing on wearing down Minnesota should be Michigan’s sole task.

With Smith at full-tilt, that’s possible. The 5’11,” 228-pound junior has shown the ability to pulverize opponents like a bull. He’s already carried guys for yards and given college football one of its best rushing touchdowns of the season. He’s also rushed for 126 and 125 yards this year–but he’s been battling a bum ankle for the past few weeks.

And on average, he gets just 62.3 yards per game.

That option seems limited at the moment.

Derrick Green, the other half of the knockout-punch-in-waiting, just hasn’t found his stride. He competed for the No. 1 job in 2013, only to be set aside for Smith, and did the same in 2014. He even entered camp looking better than ever–but not even that has led to what Michigan expected from the former 5-star.

Green’s had 42 carries compared to Smith’s 96. The 5’11,” 225-pounder averages 21 yards per game and has two touchdowns compared to Smith’s four. Together, they have just six of the team’s 17 rushing touchdowns. A tandem such as that should account for the lion’s share, right?

But there could be good news for Michigan this weekend, as redshirt junior Drake Johnson is expected to return to the lineup. The 6’2,” 207-pound speedster adds plenty of flash, which would be a huge complement if Michigan establishes power with Smith and Green.

Fullback Sione Houma has three touchdowns. The 6’0,” 243-pound senior has earned keep around the goal line. That’s his job; however, asking him to do more, such as carry Green and Smith’s share, would be unrealistic.

And of course, there’s always Isaac. Well, that’s been the talk. So far, the 6’3,” 240-pound redshirt junior has had ball-security issues (fumbles/botched handoffs) and averages just 29.3 yards per game–an average helped by that breakaway vs. UNLV.

If that doesn’t work, then it could be time to take another spin with Jabrill Peppers. The 6’1,” 205-pound redshirt freshman safety caught a pass for 28 yards during the Wolverines’ 27-23 loss to Michigan State. Harbaugh didn’t specify, but he did suggest that Peppers–who’s yet to take a hand-off in college–could see more time on offense as the season progresses.

“Yes, possibly,” Harbaugh said, via Angelique Chengelis of the Detroit News.  “As always, you would like your opponent to understand all the possibilities and let them think about that. But very much a possibility.”

Harbaugh’s possibilities are running out by the minute. And his running backs aren’t running enough. Sooner or later, the lack of a grinding push from the backfield will catch up with Michigan.

This weekend in Minneapolis could prove to be a major turning point for the Wolverines, either in a positive or negative direction.

Follow Adam Biggers of Today’s U on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

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