Another game, another win for the Michigan Wolverines. On Saturday, it looked to me like the team played its best all-around game this season – maybe even since Brady Hoke arrived in Ann Arbor. While it was obvious that Illinois was way overmatched in this game, the effort that the Wolverines displayed on both sides of the ball was impressive.
Denard Robinson ran the offense with perfection, as he continues to move closer to setting the NCAA career rushing record for a quarterback. He ran the ball effectively and also passed it well, as offensive coordinator Al Borges called a nice game, establishing the run early and passing at opportune times. Like I’ve pointed out in the past, when Denard throws less than 20 times per game, we are likely going to see the Wolverines adding a victory to the win column.
More impressive to me than Denard’s play was the emergence of an actual running game from the running back position. For the first time this season, Michigan was able to move the ball on the ground with someone other than Denard. This came in the form of a platoon-style attack, using the abilities of three different backs in Thomas Rawls, Justice Hayes, and Fitz Toussaint. At first, I was a little skeptical on how this would work out. But after I saw how Borges used each player, I realized that this is going to be the best way for the offense to run the ball for the rest of the season (minus the times that Denard keeps the ball himself).
The use of a corps of running backs in college football, and even the NFL, is not a foreign concept in the game the way that it is played today. It used to be that teams had one running back that got all of the carries, similar to what we saw at Michigan in the days of Mike Hart or Anthony Thomas. But as offenses have evolved, and as defenses have adapted to the new styles of offense, the need for multiple backs has become evident. Offensive-minded coaches have made it a point to run as many plays in a game as possible, figuring that the more plays you run, the more chances to score you will have. To do this, the use of the no-huddle, not only in a two-minute offense situation, has become a method that teams use. See the Oregon Ducks if you have any questions about this. Naturally, fatigue can become a factor and one running back can’t stay fresh enough for an entire drive down the field when they are running play after play without coming to the huddle. So teams will substitute one or two other backs in at any given time and rotate these guys throughout the course of the game.
What I like about Michigan’s situation is that the three guys they have each display different talents which make it tough for defenses to defend. Rawls is more of a power back because of his size, but he also has good speed. Toussaint is the faster playmaker. And Justice, while inexperienced, has shown the ability to find the hole and pick up good yardage, especially when Rawls and Toussaint aren’t in the game.
So far this season, Toussaint has been ineffective when he has been in the backfield as the primary running back. The coaches needed to try something else and the game against Illinois presented the perfect opportunity to try it out. The coaches have made it apparent that they still believe in Toussaint and I believe that they aren’t just saying this to keep his head up. He is a good running back, but I think the off-field distractions early in the season may have affected him. He just hasn’t seemed to gel with the offense yet. And I disagree with others in the media who have said that opposing defenses have been coming out to try and stop Toussaint. That just doesn’t make sense. Why would a defense force the best player on the field (Denard) to keep the ball? In the games which Michigan lost, it wasn’t because Denard had the ball more often.
The coaches realized that something needed to be done. An offense where Denard is the only running threat is no offense at all. With this new platoon of running backs, defenses will face multiple threats. If Michigan wants to pound with Rawls, it can. If they want some speed on the field, they can go with Toussaint or Hayes. Add to that the match-up nightmare which is Devin Funchess and the play-making ability of guys on the outside like Devin Gardner, Jeremy Gallon, and Roy Roundtree, and you have an offense that is tough to contain. Nice job by the coaches to earn their pay and find a way to get the most out of the players they have.
One quick note about the defense and special teams play on Saturday. Nice job! I know that the Illinois offense wasn’t very good and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was knocked out of the game early, but I thought the defense was flying to the ball on every play and it looked as if every player had prepared well for this game. Also, nice job by the punting unit as it downed all four punts inside the Illinois 20-yard line and allowed no return yardage. Also, is anyone else interested in seeing Dennis Norfleet return more punts?? As good of a kick returner that he is, I’ve wondered why we don’t see him return more punts. Maybe we will see more of that in the future.
Michigan’s last two games against Purdue and Illinois were not games to use as measuring sticks for how good this Michigan team really is. But they were games where the coaches could work on some things, try some new personnel packages, and get things tuned up for what will be the toughest part of the 2012 season. Michigan State comes to Ann Arbor this week looking for a win that will validate what has been a tough season so far. Then the Wolverines head to Lincoln for a night game against a Nebraska team which can be tough if they ever decide to play an entire game. Overall, things are looking good right now in all aspects, but things are going to be different from here on out in the Big Ten schedule. The Wolverines just need to keep doing what they’ve been doing and not allow other teams to dictate to them what they can and cannot do.