Last Wednesday, Michigan coach Brady Hoke was still committed to the idea of Fitzgerald Toussaint being his lead tailback.
But a “head concussion thing” led Hoke to believe Toussaint wasn’t quite practiced enough. That injury -- which Hoke said no longer is ailing the redshirt senior -- left Toussaint on the sideline and forced the hand of the Michigan coaching staff to turn to some of its youth in the run game. And that decision paid dividends.
Freshman Derrick Green led the way with 19 carries for 79 yards, and fellow true freshman De'Veon Smith toted the ball eight times for 41 yards. For the first time this season, it really looked like Michigan was able to establish a run game that looks similar to the power game the Wolverines’ preach about week in and week out.
“Both of those guys are pretty much downhill runners,” Hoke said. “They have a chance to end up north and south because of their size and their style. They have pretty good vision most of the time.”
Coming in to the Northwestern game, Green had just 40 carries all season while Smith had accounted for just 15 carries over two games. But against the Wildcats, the two averaged 4.4 yards per carry, which is far more production out of the tailback position than the Wolverines have been accustomed to through the Big Ten schedule.
Because of the freshmen’s production, Hoke now has quite the decision -- one that will play out over the course of this week -- on whether to stick with his veteran running back who hasn’t gotten it going, or to take a chance on his young guns.
“We’ll see where we shake out at the end of the week with who will be the first back in,” Hoke said.
But not all of the accomplishments of the youthful running backs can be attributed to Green and Smith. The youthful interior line -- freshman left guard Kyle Bosch, redshirt sophomore center Graham Glasgow and redshirt freshman right guard Erik Magnuson -- played its part and really created space for the Wolverines for the first time during the conference slate.
“The running backs played well,” left tackle Taylor Lewan said. “But we also gave them holes to run through. That was huge. It was a good team effort.”
“I think the three guys inside really established the line of scrimmage,” Hoke added. “When you watch the tape [the running backs] were able to get started better.”
But the offensive line (and whichever back the Wolverines go with on Saturday) will face a tough test in Iowa. The Hawkeyes have allowed just four rushing touchdowns all season and one quarter of all opponent rushes have gone for 0 or negative yardage.
But it’s not impossible to have success in the run game against Iowa. Wisconsin rushed for 218 yards earlier this month, and Ohio State rushed for 273 yards against the Hawkeyes.
With the advancements the young interior line and young running backs showed against Northwestern, it should be a very interesting matchup in Iowa City.
“We weren’t perfect but some of the movement we had at the line of scrimmage -- trust me, that’ll be tested this week because of how Iowa plays the line of scrimmage and who they have playing it,” Hoke said. “We’ll be tested, but they got movement [against Northwestern] and it was really good to see the combination blocks working together.”