Just about everything clicked for the Michigan Wolverines on Saturday night, as the visitors put up 478 total yards of offense and six touchdowns in a blowout of Minnesota. While Joe Milton was extremely impressive in his first game at the helm, the rushing attack should give fans plenty of hope for the rest of the season.
With new starters along the offensive line and among the wide receiver corps, as well as a brand new quarterback under center, the running backs were always going to be a heavy focal point of the offense to start the year. Luckily the Wolverines have plenty of talent and depth at this position group, and if Week 1 was any indication, the run game can continue to be the foundation of this team going forward.
Zach Charbonnet, Hassan Haskins, Blake Corum, and Chris Evans had an extremely productive performance against the Gophers, combining for 192 rushing yards and four touchdowns on just 20 carries while adding a pair of catches for 34 receiving yards as well. Of course, Milton himself is also a running threat, but this quartet has the potential to be everything Jim Harbaugh could have hoped for from a running back room.
The two-headed monster returns
Charbonnet took the first handoff of the 2019 season as a true freshman, and he got the team’s first running back carry in 2020 as well, taking it 70 yards to the house. The powerful sophomore has lived up to his potential thus far, and he looks like the type of player that could run the ball 20 times a game and put the team on his back.
However, that is not what Michigan wants (see: Army, 2019) nor needs to do. Haskins burst onto the scene during the second half of last season and picked up right where he left off. Calling him the short-yardage back is a major oversimplification of his skill set, though he did score on both of his goal line touches, including once from a direct snap.
The beauty of the Charbonnet-Haskins pairing is that each player has areas where he stands out, but either one can be used in almost any situation. While Charbonnet may be the better overall talent, and also the better pass blocker, the coaches have looked to Haskins in third-and-short and end zone situations last year and in also this game.
Both players have the ideal combination of strength and speed, able to pick up the tough yards, but also capable of breaking away from the pack as each showed with a 60+ yard run against Minnesota. Any team with this sort of running back duo should feel great, but for the Wolverines, this is just one half of the rushing attack.
Personifying speed in space
While Charbonnet took the first carry, the offense’s first play of the game was a swing pass to Blake Corum. The freshman promptly sprinted 24 yards up field, putting his speed and athleticism on display. While some postulated that Michigan might ease their talented rookie into the offense given the presence of three other backs, Josh Gattis decided to instead get the ball into his new weapon’s hands right away.
The biggest encouragement regarding Corum might be how the coaches treated him after his first mistake. The freshman put the ball on the ground during a kickoff return, which fortunately was recovered by Michael Barrett. Gattis showed his confidence in Corum by giving him the ball a few plays later, and he rewarded his coach by picking up a first down.
The same type of plays can be made by Chris Evans, who had a good return from his year of suspension. Evans found the end zone on the ground and also logged a catch, providing another shifty option out of the backfield. Both he and Corum got some work between the tackles, but their pass-catching ability is what really compliments them well to the more traditional runners. With the ball in their hands, both players can turn on the jets and change the look of a possession quickly.
The Michigan running backs looked primed for a thunder-and-lightning combination ahead of the season, and if the first game was any indication, this is exactly the approach Gattis will take. Charbonnet and Haskins did not need many carries to show they are ready to build on their foundation from 2019, and Corum and Evans are the perfect players to unlock the dynamic nature of Gattis’s scheme.
There is still plenty of room for Giles Jackson and A.J. Henning on end arounds and for Milton to keep the ball on reads and designed runs. However, the offense is going to go through these four talented running backs, and the revival of Ben Mason is further evidence that this is how Michigan wants to attack defenses.
As the offensive line continues to mesh and as Milton grows in his experience, this backfield quartet will only grow in productivity. Though 9.6 yards per carry should not be the expectation, the Wolverines are clearly able to hit home runs with any of their backs and can utilize these players in a wide variety of ways. There is a whole lot of season left, but it is hard to not be excited about what lies ahead for this group.