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September 18, 2013After the graduation of spread quarterback Denard Robinson, Michigan vowed to get back to power football in 2013. Through three games this season, that transition is still a work in progress.
Fifth-year senior Fitzgerald Toussaint is the team's leading running back with 199 yards and three touchdowns on 55 carries (3.6 yards per rush). He has yet to rush for more than 71 yards in a game this season, hitting that mark in each of the last two games.
Neither Toussaint nor any other Michigan running back has topped the 100-yard mark in a game since Toussaint rushed 20 times for 120 yards against Ohio State in 2011.
And the majority of Toussaint's yardage this season has come on just eight carries. Eight of Toussaint's 55 attempts have gone for 10 or more yards, with a 20-yard rush against Central Michigan, rushes of 10, 14 and 22 yards and Notre Dame and 11-, 14-, 16-, and 24-yard carries vs. Akron.
A total of 121 or Toussaint 199 yards (60.8 percent) are accounted for with those eight runs.
On his 47 other carries this season, Toussaint has amassed 78 total yards (1.7 yards per rush).
Toussaint has tallied 13 negative-yardage rushes this season, including seven in Saturday's 28-24 win over Akron. Another 28 of his carries have been stopped for 0-4 yards.
That's a total of 41 rushes (74.5 percent of his 55 total carries) on which Toussaint has gained four or fewer yards.
"We're not making holes for the running back," fifth-year senior left tackle Taylor Lewan said after last weekend's game. "Fitz is a great, unbelievable running back, but you can't do anything if you don't have a hole. A couple of times there was a hole here and there and Fitz got out, but some penalties took him back. We'll get that fixed."
Toussaint isn't the only runner who has had problems finding open running lanes on a consistent basis.
Of Michigan's 115 total rushing attempts (minus sacks), 73 of them have gone for four or fewer yards, including 20 that went for negative yards.
On the flip side, 21 rushes have gone for 10 or more yards, including 11 from redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner, who leads the team in rushing with 30 carries for 237 yards and four scores.
Those 21 combined carries account for 396 of Michigan's 585 total rushing yards (67.7 percent). On the Wolverines' 97 other carries this season, they have amassed just 189 yards (1.9 yards per rush).
"There were some good holes in there at times," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "Fitz made a couple good cuts out of it. Is it consistent enough? No. I think watching it like we will, there's going to be a lot of learning and a lot of good teaching going on."
The Wolverines have picked up yardage in chunks, with 21 total runs and passes that have covered 20 or more yards (seven per game). Just five programs have tallied more such plays this season: Oregon (34), Maryland (32), Indiana (30), Utah (24) and Texas A&M (22). Of those 21 plays, 14 of them covered at least 30 yards. The Ducks are the only offense with more plays of 30 or more yards, racking up 17 in three game.
Despite the running game's faults, the Wolverines have popped more long runs than almost any program in the country.
Of Michigan's 21 total plays that spanned 20 or more yards, 10 of them have come on the ground. Just three programs - Oregon (16), Maryland (12) and Wisconsin (12) - have more such plays than the Wolverines this season.
Here's where it gets interesting. The offense's rushing prowess has been nearly universally maligned. But the run game is on pace to be more explosive than even the 2010 offense, which was, of course, Robinson's breakout season.
In 2010, the Wolverines compiled 24 rushes that spanned 20 or more yards, including 16 from Robinson. The next season, the offense racked up 30 such rushing plays, including 12 from Robinson and 10 from Toussaint. Last year, Michigan had just 21 rushes of 20 or more yards.
This year, the Wolverines are on pace to finish the regular season with 40 rushing plays of 20 or more yards. If you add a bowl game, they're on pace for 43 such rushes. With the Big Ten Championship Game added into the mix, they're on pace for 46 - and just one team in the last three seasons has had more than 46 rushing plays of 20 yards or more (Georgia Tech with 47 in 2011).
And it's not just Gardner, who has five of Michigan's 10 total thus far. Toussaint is currently averaging a 20-yard run per game - and he had two called back on holding penalties vs. the Zips.
So, what does this tell us?
"If you look at the video, there's some really nice-looking plays surrounded by garbage," offensive coordinator Al Borges said yesterday.
"You can tell when we do it right and when we don't. I mean, we come off the ball and our butts are right next to each other on zone blocks. Our combo blocks are hard and there's no space between blocks. You could see the difference from when it's not. The consistency of play is always the issue when you're not playing as good. One time it's good, one time it doesn't look as good. Why? Maybe fatigue. Maybe just lack of attention to detail. Things like that, but the runs that break are pretty runs."
It all comes down to consistency.