When Michigan surged for 751 yards and 63 points against Indiana, it appeared primed for a run at the Big Ten Legends division lead and a possible Big Ten conference title game berth.
Those hopes were dashed by two consecutive losses: a crushing 29-6 defeat to rival Michigan State followed by a disappointing last-minute 17-13 loss to Nebraska.
Both opponents exploited the Michigan offensive line to hammer quarterback Devin Gardner and smother running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. Gardner and Toussaint paid a heavy price, taking a beating playing behind an offensive line that ranks among the worst in recent Michigan history.
With no experienced backup, head coach Brady Hoke had no choice but to keep playing quarterback Gardner. But when starter Toussaint was injured in practice, Hoke made freshman Derrick Green the primary ball-carrier versus Northwestern
Some things didn’t change.
Gardner was still under constant pressure, rushing to get rid of the ball and narrowly avoiding throwing multiple interceptions. He was sacked five times but did manage decent numbers (24 of 43 for 226 yards and one touchdown) compared to the previous two games.
But Green breathed life back into a Michigan running game that had been on life support since being shut down by Michigan State. Green (19 carries for 79 yards) ran the ball with an authority that had been missing most of the season, and Michigan finished with positive yardage (139) for the first time since playing Indiana.
Is the Michigan running attack fixed?
Theory one: Fitzgerald Toussaint was the problem
Toussaint just hasn’t recovered from the devastating injury he suffered last season, and running behind Michigan’s poor offensive line has not helped. Toussaint also struggled in pass protection, which compounded problems for Gardner.
Toussaint’s tentative running style has contributed to Michigan’s problems running the ball this season. Green gave the offense a spark that has been missing.
Theory two: The offensive line improved versus Northwestern
The Michigan offensive line has been abysmal this season. No amount of shuffling has helped. Gardner still struggled to run the ball versus Northwestern and was sacked five times.
Devin Gardner would probably disagree that allowing five sacks is an improvement. The play-calling might have helped the Green run better against Northwestern, but the offensive line still played poorly. The main difference is that Green didn’t wait for running lanes to appear—he made his own opportunities and fought for yards after being hit.
Theory three: The Northwestern defense isn’t as good as Nebraska or MSU
Northwestern isn’t as good defensively as Michigan State or Nebraska, but Green still gained positive yardage when Gardner struggled to run the ball. That differential isn’t a lot to hang on to, but after the dismal performances versus Michigan State and Nebraska, it's something.
Green definitely took advantage of playing against Northwestern instead of Michigan State. The road ahead will be much more difficult.
The main problem plaguing the Michigan running attack is poor blocking by the offensive line. Derrick Green had success against Northwestern, but results against Iowa and Ohio State will prove whether the Michigan running attack is truly fixed.
Can Green duplicate his performance versus Iowa and Ohio State?
Michigan's season depends on it.