Over the past three weeks, the Michigan offense has come alive, in part because of a quarterback change to Brandon Peters, but mainly due to a new-found explosiveness in the run game. The leader of the running back corps, Karan Higdon, has accumulated 408 yards on the ground in that timeframe. But, he is not alone. Both Ty Isaac and Chris Evans have had 100+ yardage games as well.
The case of Chris Evans is a bit perplexing. Entering the 2017 season, Evans was the presumed starter at running back after having an electric freshman season. But after a 78-yard performance against the Florida Gators, Evans’s game sputtered. Throughout October, Chris Evans accounted for only 78 rushing yards on 29 carries, which amounted to a measly 2.68 yards per run. His only touchdown through the whole month was on a 20-yard pass from Brandon Peters against Rutgers.
Now, here are Chris Evans’s November statistics through only two games: 271 yards on 28 carries (9.68 ypc), 29 yards on three receptions, and four touchdowns. With two less games and only one less carry, Evans has already surpassed his October yardage total by nearly 200 yards. The combination of Higdon’s and Evans’s rushing totals against the Minnesota Golden Gophers was the most by two Michigan running backs in school history.
Finally, the Michigan fanbase is watching the dynamic Higdon-Evans duo that it had hoped for at the start of 2017. This two-punch, joined by Ty Isaac’s and Kareem Walker’s heavy-set runs, is making the Michigan running attack one of the most intriguing and difficult-to-stop offensive units in the BigTen.
So, what changed? The simple answer includes a switch at quarterback and much better run blocking. These two factors absolutely play a significant role, along with a change in play calling towards more counter-run and isolation-blocking schemes. But, Chris Evans’s improved game is not solely the by-product of enhanced performances around him. He is running harder and with more patience, making smarter cuts, and using his vision all at a significantly increased level.
Let me illustrate below:
These back-to-back plays, mid-way through the first quarter, demonstrate precisely how Evans has improved recently. Even prior to the season, when people were predicting a 1000-yard year for Evans, no one truly thought he could be repeatedly serviceable running up the middle. His frame is too small, and he is more of a shifty back in open space than a smasher. Yet, Evans’s recent resurgence is directly due to his increased performance running in-between the tackles.
For one, Evans is utilizing his agility to his advantage. Instead of lowering his shoulder to slam through traffic, Evans squeezes himself through the hole without losing a step. From there, Evans can do exactly what he is best at: explode through the second level. In the next play, Evans is again confronted with a hole too small to run through. It is 3rd and 1. Most running backs would lower their shoulder and hit any space hard enough to gain the first. But Evans, alternatively, sits back patiently and allows the hole to open first - channeling Le’Veon Bell, who has a very similar skill set. Then, again, as soon as Evans gets to the second level, he turns a 2-yard gain into 12.
But, perhaps you’re still unconvinced about Evans’s enhanced abilities running up the gut. If so, watch this:
4 plays, 16 yards, 1 touchdown, all while running up the middle. During the first two plays, Evans again demonstrates his progressed patience and vision. He allows the blocking scheme to develop in front of him. But not only that, when Evans does run into traffic, he is now hitting it harder and falling forward. Both plays gained 5 yards, respectively. Then, on the third play, Evans illustrates his arsenal of talents as he cuts abruptly to find a new hole, and then jukes and drives to get to the 1 yard line. Another gain of 5.
Finally, to cap off a great power running sequence by Evans, Coach Harbaugh and Co. trust him to carry the ball into the end zone from the 1. In the past, that ball would go to Khalid Hill, Ty Isaac, Higdon, or Poggi like earlier in the game. Or, if Evans were to carry it, he would run a sweep. But, his improvement at running between the tackles is rewarded, so Evans runs a one-yard dive for his first touchdown against Maryland.
Chris Evans and Karan Higdon, however, have not been confined to just the run game recently. Both have been receiving increased attention in the passing attack, which will only grow in the future. Against Maryland, the two running backs accounted for 77 yards on only 4 receptions. Though Higdon had the most exciting reception of the game, Evans also brought the fans to their feet with his athleticism, especially with the play above.
On 3rd and 12, Evans gained 17 yards after the catch. He can make anyone miss in the open field, so using him as a check-down is a perfect way to exploit a defense whose whole backfield is deep in coverage. The Maryland linebacker never stood a chance, especially since he hesitated when deciding if he should engage Evans at the catch or take an angle to catch him downfield. It was a fantastic play by Evans, and his receptions will only increase throughout the remainder of the season because of it.
Now, we get to end our film review of Chris Evans’s performance with his two most electric plays of the game. The first carry demonstrates all of the improvements Evans has made over recent weeks. He allows the blocking scheme to develop in front of him as he navigates from the left A gap all the way to the right edge. Evans then follows his blocker well, and bounces to the outside when Zach Gentry loses the inside block. From there, Evans runs free in the open field for an easy first down and then caps off a great run with an awesome hurdle over the Maryland defender.
As noted early, Coach Harbaugh rewards great efforts with touchdowns. And during this series, it was no different. On the very next play, Chris Evans gets the handoff again up the middle. He avoids a tackle for loss with an quick juke then hits the hole hard. From there, it was a full-on sprint through the Maryland secondary to the end zone. Evans broke three tackles on that play, which is again a sign of his increased strength and more aggressive running style. Excellent power run by Evans.
With at least three games left on Michigan’s schedule for the 2017 season, Karan Higdon is only 146 rushing yards away from being the first Michigan running back to total 1000 yards since Fitzgerald Toussaint in 2011. Chris Evans, simultaneously, is only 46 yards away from surpassing his 2016 rushing total. Despite his delayed spark, Evans has now joined Higdon to create a potent running attack in the Michigan backfield. And the Wolverines will need outstanding performances by both of them over the next two weeks. If Higdon and Evans play the way they have been in November, there should be no stopping them.