Michigan returns home to face Indiana on Saturday at The Big House, looking to recover from a disappointing loss to Penn State in which running backs Fitzgerald Toussaint and Derrick Green combined for just 28 yards rushing on 30 carries.
Michigan had turned an 11-point halftime deficit into a 10-point lead midway through the fourth quarter and looked to be in a good position to win before inexplicably relying on its anemic running game and misfiring field goal kicker to put the game away.
Head coach Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges both denied they were being conservative in their play-calling, but the statistics told another story.
After Penn State made a field goal to pull within a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, Michigan took possession with 6:28 remaining on the clock.
With a chance to the put game away with either a touchdown or a field goal, Michigan’s drive consisted of 10 running plays, one pass and one played called back due to illegal procedure.
|Michigan Play Selection Q4 6:28|
|Penn State Penalty||15|
|Michigan Game Statistics|
Under normal circumstances, this strategy would be understandable. Many coaches would choose to run down the clock by keeping the ball on the ground.
But these were not normal circumstances.
Michigan’s offensive line has struggled all season to effectively run the ball from the tailback position. The situation has grown so desperate, that two weeks ago, the Wolverines moved their best offensive lineman, Taylor Lewan, from his normal position at left tackle to the right of the formation as an extra blocker to bolster the running attack.
Lewan left the Penn State game with an injury prior to halftime, denying the Michigan running attack its best blocker. The offensive line, which was working to integrate new starting guard Chris Bryant, had to replace both Lewan and Bryant, who struggled in his blocking assignments.
Playing behind a makeshift offensive line, Michigan's running backs had no chance for success.
And yet with the game on the line, Toussaint and Green were called to carry the ball nine times with predictable results. The best gain the Wolverines could muster came compliment of a 15-yard pass interference penalty against Penn State.
Michigan's decision to run the ball with no hope of success made even less sense considering that it was relying on a field goal kicker who was clearly struggling.
When questioned about the play-calling, Hoke said that his decisions were made to give his team the best chance for victory.
The best option for Hoke was quarterback Devin Gardner (121 yards on 24 carries, 15 completions for 240 yards and three touchdowns), who had rallied the Wolverines from an 11-point halftime deficit.
While Michigan cannot abandon its running game completely, the Wolverines need to make the following changes to get things back on track this week against Indiana.
Reset the offensive line
The offensive line has been a source of frustration all season for Michigan. The adjustments made against Minnesota (swapping out center Jack Miller, inserting Bryant at guard and moving Lewan) fell apart against Penn State.
With Lewan’s status still in doubt for Saturday, the coaches need to move him or his replacement back to left tackle and keep him there.
The larger question to be addressed after the season is why the Wolverines have failed to develop more offensive line talent three years into Hoke’s tenure.
Try different running backs
It’s time to give of the other running backs on the roster an opportunity to show what they can do. Green, Thomas Rawls, De’Veon Smith, and Justice Hayes have 37 combined carries among them. It’s time to see if someone else besides Toussaint can have more success.
The best running back
Gardner has gained the most yards rushing (439) in the backfield and has the best yards per carry average (5.5) on the team. Maybe next season, the offensive line will have improved and the running backs will shoulder more of the load. Six games into this season, however, Gardner is the most consistent running threat on the team.
Pass to set up the run
Michigan's offense has found success in its passing game, but only after Gardner has broken some long runs. With its running backs unable to move the ball consistently, Michigan needs to rely on the spread formation to give Gardner lanes to run.
It’s not what the coaches wanted heading into this season, but it gives the offense the best chance to move the ball.
Phil Callihan is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand during press conferences.