Losing their religion

Michigan would like to be a running team, but its backs haven't delivered

Updated: November 7, 2012, 10:59 AM ET
By Chantel Jennings | WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Remember when 69 rushing yards against Alabama was evaluated as a terrible performance for Michigan?

Fitzgerald Toussaint was suspended for the opener against the Crimson Tide, and most assumed once he returned the junior would make the rushing numbers skyrocket.

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesDenard Robinson has more rushing yards this season than all of Michigan's running backs combined.
The players and coaches promised the run game would get better, easing the minds of fans. And every week since they've said the run game would get better.

But has anyone seen it? The run game hasn't been very effective all season, and Toussaint, who remains Michigan's starter, doesn't seem to be hitting the holes like he did last season. Yes, Denard Robinson has piled up some excellent rushing totals, but the running backs haven't. Toussaint leads Wolverines backs with 391 yards, a far cry from expectations.

So where does the blame fall?

"It's attributed to so many factors," offensive coordinator Al Borges said. "And again, I know the media, everybody always wants to blame it on one thing -- the depth, the quarterback, the play-calling, whatever it is. & It's never one thing. It's always a bunch of things."

Toussaint said he gives credit to opposing defenses for scheming well against the Wolverines and that every player still tries to play up to the expectation of the position which is to "play hard, block hard, run hard."

For the most part, Michigan has stuck to its original plan: Toussaint was slotted as the starter with sophomore Thomas Rawls as a backup and senior Vincent Smith as a third-down back. But against Minnesota, with Robinson on the sideline, Michigan diverged from that a bit.

Smith was the main third-down back, though Toussaint and Rawls did get in some in those situations. The three times Michigan running backs carried on third downs, the ball was never handed off to Smith. The one first-down conversion gained by a running back was from Rawls.

The Wolverines rushed for 155 yards on 41 carries (3.8 average) against Minnesota. With Gardner's stats taken out the numbers for the running backs drop to 3.1 yards per carry.

Toussaint's 41-yard touchdown run was the backs' highlight of the day. His other carries averaged 2.4 yards.

Rawls' numbers weren't much better. He rushed 16 times for 43 yards (2.7 average), but he seemed to be more direct and north-south. Rawls also didn't have any negative yardage, which seems to be a trademark for the sophomore. In his five games this season, he has only accounted for 2 lost yards.

The coaching staff had been saying for weeks that it was looking for spots to get Rawls into games. He made his first appearance early in the first quarter and finished with a season high in carries. His 5.3 yards per carry through this season probably has a lot to do with that, especially when considering Toussaint is averaging 3.6 yards.

"I think they both have done a good job when they've been in there," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "I think they both have -- when there's been times where there's enough space -- run hard and run downhill. We may have missed two or three cuts last week, but I like how their attitude is running the football."

It's the same attitude as last year, but it just doesn't appear as effective in games.

Through nine games in 2011, running backs had toted the ball 224 times for 1,210 yards. Their average of 5.4 yards per carry is 1.6 yards per carry higher than this season, and that has weighed on Michigan's offense.

"The problem is if you're not running the football well, you're putting too much pressure on your quarterback," Borges said. "That's at every level. & When the team can't run the ball, as good of a passer those guys have, they generally render themselves ineffective eventually. You may get away with it in a game. You may get away with it in another game. Eventually it shows up."

It has shown up in the Wolverines' losses. Michigan has averaged 108.3 yards per game rushing in its losses and 247.2 yards per game in its wins.

The Wolverine backs haven't produced like last year and because of it, neither has the team. If Michigan wants to remain in the hunt for the Big Ten title, something will have to change, whether it be on the O-line, the play-calling, the running backs or the system. And if that doesn't, then the expectation should. Because saying something doesn't make it true. And just because a team says it's a running team doesn't mean it is.