Despite disappointing losses to its only ranked competition of the season, the Michigan Wolverines are still in contention for the Big Ten conference title. But running back Fitzgerald Toussaint will make that crowning achievement impossible unless he picks up the slack.
The redshirt junior has had his share of off-field issues, most notably a drunk driving offense in the summer, which saw him ride the pin in the season-opening 41-13 loss to No. 1 Alabama.
His return to the starting lineup hasn't been a very fruitful one. Toussaint is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry following a breakout, 1,000-yard campaign in 2011.
It's been hard enough for senior QB Denard Robinson carrying the weight in the passing game without fantastic protection and a dull receiving corps. Having to shoulder almost the entire load in the running game will wear Robinson down before season's end, likely costing the Wolverines the chance to win the conference.
Robinson is so elusive that defenses are looking for him to tuck and run on the zone-read more often than not—but he still gets away. Against the more elite competition, Toussaint must prove he can be explosive.
Something has to be established this week ahead of the rivalry game versus Michigan State, who has a stellar defensive unit. The strength of Michigan is obviously its running game—it helps keep the defense off the field and prevents Robinson from having to throw. Robinson has talent, but is very inconsistent with his footwork.
That's why it's all the more crucial that Toussaint improve immediately. The more of a threat he is as the No. 2 running option, the more versatile the Wolverine offense can be in its play-calling.
If Toussaint plows ahead with such mediocre production, the Michigan offense will get off the field more quickly. That will result in falling behind early and having to abandon the run, forcing Robinson to beat defenses with his arm. That's something he's not capable of doing against top-tier teams.
To be fair to a player who has probably been painted unfairly by the media for a run-in with the law, Troussaint hasn't been helped as much by the offensive line as he was last season.
The departure of Rimington Award-winning center David Polk definitely hurt the chemistry of the unit. That has caused Toussaint to change his style a little bit and become less of a north-south runner.
According to MichiganTremendous.com's extremely detailed breakdown of Toussaint's game, he is becoming impatient and bouncing runs outside too often.
Perhaps he is pressing for the big play since he isn't posting numbers that are more indicative of his potential. A solid proving ground and a chance to balloon those numbers for Toussaint will be provided in Saturday's matchup against Illinois.
The Fighting Illini has been a very poor defense as of late, giving up 118 combined points in its past three games. That should open up space for Toussaint and build his line's confidence, to say the least. Robinson should also have a huge game to compliment his struggling teammate.
Whoever is to blame for his lackluster campaign, Toussaint has to be better for the Wolverines to even have a chance at a Big Ten title.