The Michigan Wolverines are 5-0 for the second straight year and third time under head coach Jim Harbaugh. Saturday’s victory over Iowa — Michigan’s first at Kinnick Stadium since 2005 — was a proof of concept game for the emerging identities on the Michigan offense against one of the best defenses in college football.
Quarterback J.J. McCarthy demonstrated a veteran poise and decisive arm in his first career road start. For the second consecutive week, the offensive line —now at full strength with the return of left guard Trevor Keegan from injury — was excellent in pass protection and road-grading in the run game. Even the much maligned play-callers executed a sharp plan to build a 20-0 lead before going conservative (maybe too conservative) to ensure a win against a turnover-reliant opponent.
But the story on offense again for the Wolverines was running back Blake Corum, who finished with 29 carries for 133 yards, one touchdown and one possible crime for what he did to All-American hopeful Jack Campbell.
Corum is now fourth in the nation in rushing yards and first in rushing touchdowns. Not bad for a guy who only carried the ball four times combined in the second halves of the first three lopsided games of the season.
The junior tailback is currently 14th in the country in carries (93), but has seen that number explode the last two weeks in Big Ten play for an average of 29.5 carries per game against Maryland and Iowa.
As the carries, yards and touchdowns add up, and the Heisman buzz swells, so does my concern for the mileage put on Michigan’s star player. The Blake Corum conundrum: how many carries are too many?
Throughout Michigan’s recent history, several players have tried to embody the “bell cow” philosophy, but few have been able to sustain the work load. Most drop off a cliff.
Fitzgerald Touissant is the last Michigan player to carry the ball 59 times or more in a two-week span. In the 2013 season, Touissant was coming off a 32-carry, 151-yard and four-touchdown performance in a win against Indiana. Over the next five games, including the bowl game, Fitz carried the ball a total of 30 times for 73 yards and two touchdowns. The wheels completely fell off for Touissant and a team that lost their final five games.
More recently in 2019, current UCLA star and former Wolverine Zach Charbonnet struggled with a heavy work load for just one week. Against Army in his second career game, Charbonnet carried the ball 33 times for 100 grueling yards to help Michigan squeak out a win in OT. The next week against Wisconsin, battered and bruised, he carried it two times for six yards.
Now, granted that entire Wisconsin game was a failure on a much larger scale, the point remains that durability becomes a liability for running backs carrying the ball that many times even in a single game.
Perhaps this is why Charbonnet was a healthy scratch for the Bruins in Week 2 this year; they understand they will need him down the stretch, and a running back only has so many good carries in them. Maybe this is why Corum only had four second-half carries combined against Colorado State, Hawaii, and UConn.
In 2018, Karan Higdon became the only Michigan player to carry the ball 30+ times twice in a season —or a career for that matter — since Mike Hart in 2007. Higdon was the workhorse and anchor of the ‘Revenge Tour’ offensively, stringing together seven-straight 100-yard performances and eight overall for the season.
Higdon became the first Michigan running back to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards in a season since Touissant in 2011, but by the Ohio State game at the end of the year, Higdon was spent. His burst was non-existent, arm tackles continually brought him down, and a mediocre Buckeye run defense held Higdon to his second worst rushing total on the season.
Hassan Haskins comes to everyone’s mind when discussing bell cow backs, but until Week 9 last year, Haskins spit carries for the duration of his Michigan career. He split carries all of 2019 with Charbonnet; he split carries in 2020 with Charbonnet, Chris Evans, and Corum (arguably the best single running back room in U-M history); last year for 75% of the regular season, he split carries almost 50/50 with Corum.
The split last year allowed Haskins to carry the team offensively late in the season against Indiana, Penn State and Ohio State, most notably. But could he have been this productive in November, if he was forced to carry the lion’s share the entire season?
The only modern Michigan running back to be able to do so is Hart. He could carry the ball 25 times as easy as five, and is the career leader in carries at Michigan with a staggering 1,015.
Hart had 13 career games with 30 or more carries (two games with 40!). The rest of the 21st century podium is rounded out by Chris Perry with three (including a 51-carry performance against Michigan State in 2003), and the aforementioned Higdon with two.
Hart was a one-of-one type of back, but perhaps Corum is too.
Much has been made about his work ethic and training regiment, that Harbaugh went as far to say, “Blake trains seven days a week year-round. I think he could play two games back-to-back every single Saturday.”
While hyperbolic, Harbaugh clearly has faith Corum can shoulder as much as the team needs him to this season. With the return of Donovan Edwards, Corum’s load should lighten, but if Edwards is sidelined again, I believe Corum possesses the physical traits to sustain a work load not seen in 25 years.
In order to do so, however, he’ll need to show some Hart in November.