Through half of the sixth-ranked Wolverines’ season, two things have been abundantly clear.
First, Michigan possesses an elite rushing attack.
Behind their two-headed monster of sophomore Blake Corum and senior Hassan Haskins, the Wolverines have accumulated 246.5 rushing yards per game, good for sixth-best in the FBS. To underscore its dominance on the ground, Michigan sits behind just five teams in this statistic, and two of them are read option-running military academies (Army and Air Force). Corum and Haskins have taken a relatively even share of the Wolverines’ carries, and each has been quite successful, scoring eight touchdowns apiece through six games.
Second, Michigan’s offensive line has been able to dominate its opposition in most matchups.
Though Haskins and Corum each deserve a lot of credit for their individual success through the Wolverines’ first six games, they have certainly received much help from strong offensive line (and blocking tight end) play. Certain images come to mind in thinking about this element of Michigan’s performance: the Wolverines’ offensive line driving back Wisconsin’s widely-touted defensive front as Michigan pulled away in the second half, senior tight end Luke Schoonmaker blocking Washington defenders thirty yards downfield, Corum sprinting untouched towards the end zone on more than one occasion.
To say that the Wolverines haven’t played against capable defenses would be disrespectful towards the quality of players and teams in the Big Ten, but it is no secret that Michigan’s offensive line has generally had its way with the opposition.
That seems likely to change, though, as the Wolverines prepare to begin what is undoubtedly the more difficult half of their schedule. With road games against No. 9 Michigan State and No. 7 Penn State still looming and a home tilt against No. 5 Ohio State slated for the season’s finale, Michigan will face defensive front sevens of a caliber which they have not encountered this season three times over the next six weeks
And while the Wolverines’ offensive line may yet be up to the challenge, the openings for Haskins and Corum will be narrower than in weeks passed. The continued success of Michigan’s running attack will depend on its backs' ability to earn extra yards in traffic and in the open field.
“I think yards after contact is huge,” running backs coach Mike Hart said. “Falling forward all the time is how you want to run. If there’s a huge hole, they should be able to get yards. But, for example, Hassan made that guy in the open field miss; that’s yards after contact even though he didn’t get touched. And Blake does the same thing in the open field a lot too. The guy may not touch him, but he makes a move on him.
“That’s what great running backs do. They get the extra yards — if the lineman block it for five, they get eight or they turn it into 20 or 30. That’s what you really look for. If the play’s blocked for four and they get four, everybody should do that at this level. It’s those guys that get the hidden yards, as we call them. Instead of 2nd and 6, it’s second and 4 [...] That’s what you want to see, and they’re doing a great job of it.”
Hart’s words of affirmation for his star running backs inspire hope in Haskins and Corum’s ability to help Michigan win tough games against formidable opposition, and Haskins in particular is an interesting case.
Standing at 6’1’ 220 pounds, Haskins' frame makes him difficult to take down, a trait that will serve him well in gaining extra yards when defenses clamp down.
“He’s physical,” Hart said. “He had some short yardage runs [against Nebraska]. One of them got hit behind the line of scrimmage and went for about two to three. And then the one everyone talks about that he got [the first down on] and they spotted it short. He’s a strong runner, downhill. He does a great job.”
None of this is to diminish Corum’s abilities, though. Michigan’s running attack has been lethal precisely because its dynamic duo of backs has been able to share time, thus keeping each other fresh and the defense on its toes. Hart compliments both backs’ ability to gain yards after contact for good reason, and it will be essential for the pair to live up to that billing against the Spartans, Nittany Lions, and Buckeyes if the Wolverines’ are to make their Big Ten Championship and College Football Playoff dreams a reality.