Sunday, October 28, 2012
Wolverines running on empty
By Michael Rothstein
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Another Saturday for Michigan, another major question about the Wolverines' offensive production.
Michigan might have lost quarterback Denard Robinson for a little more than a half against Nebraska, but even before the senior went out it was the same old, same old from the Wolverines running backs.
There was no consistency. They were stuffed again and again. It leads to wondering what, exactly, is wrong at the position this season, and whether it is time to contemplate a serious shift in playing time among those backs.
Save the season opener against Alabama, Michigan has stuck with Fitzgerald Toussaint as its featured back. Initially it made sense. Toussaint came off a 1,000-yard season in which he came on especially strong through the final five games of the regular season.
There was little reason to think it would not continue, but it hasn't. Not close. If anything, Toussaint further regressed Saturday, when he averaged 2.5 yards a carry and had a long run of 9 yards. It was the third time in four games in which Toussaint averaged less than 4 yards per touch, and for the entire season he is averaging 3.3 yards per rush -- 2.3 fewer than he did a season ago and 1.7 below his career average.
Moreover, he has passed 60 yards rushing just twice this season -- against hapless Massachusetts and Big Ten bottom-feeder Illinois -- and has not had a 100-yard game. Yet as he ran again and again into a Nebraska defensive front that wouldn't budge, Michigan coach Brady Hoke never contemplated making a change in personnel. Never considered looking to sophomore Thomas Rawls.
"No," Hoke said. "I thought Fitz ran hard."
Toussaint is a talented back. His season last year and his brief flashes this season have shown that. And Michigan's coaches have said, since they arrived in Ann Arbor, that they would prefer a featured back instead of a committee approach.
The best that Michigan's running backs have run as a group this season came against Illinois, where the Wolverines had four backs carry the ball at least nine times -- Toussaint, Rawls, Robinson and Justice Hayes. Some of those runs came in mop-up time in a 45-0 win, but a lot of the run balance came early.
It might not be a coincidence, either, that Michigan last scored a touchdown with 6:01 remaining in that game -- that was just more than 126 minutes of game action ago. Since then, the Wolverines have survived (Michigan State) and failed (Nebraska) living a field-goal existence. Meanwhile, Rawls has not had a carry in the past two games, either, as Michigan has relied solely on Toussaint and third-down specialist Vincent Smith.
Yet Hoke is sticking with Toussaint and does not feel Michigan's offense is becoming predictable.
"I know what Al [Borges] changes up formationally," Hoke said.
The one area Hoke is starting to lose patience with is what happens when Michigan reaches the red zone, an area where strong running backs usually thrive.
In Big Ten play, Michigan has scored touchdowns on only six of its 14 chances in the red zone.
"Getting in the red zone and not taking advantage of it. We had those opportunities," Hoke said. "Frustration level can vary. Not blocking the line of scrimmage, maybe a guy not running the right route, a quarterback not playing as well, all those things. I think it's always a combination of everything.
"It's never one guy's deal. We brought 70 guys and coaches and staff. This is on all of us."