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Running game giving a boost to No. 21 Michigan

Running game giving a boost to No. 21 Michigan
Posted at 10:46 PM, Nov 06, 2017

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) -- After all the hand wringing this season over Michigan's quarterback play, the passing game became an afterthought last weekend.

With 371 yards rushing against Minnesota, the Wolverines might have won no matter who was taking the snaps, and although that type of performance may be hard to replicate, it did give No. 21 Michigan a blueprint for how the team might be able to finish strong against a tough November schedule.

"Never can I remember being associated on a team where backs had as many 50 yard-plus runs as we had in this one ballgame," coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. "Or 47 -- count that one."

Michigan's 33-10 victory on Saturday included runs of 77, 67, 60 and 47 yards. Karan Higdon finished the night with 200 yards on the ground, and Chris Evans ran for 191. Each rushed for two touchdowns. Brandon Peters, the latest choice at quarterback for the Wolverines, attempted only 13 passes.

Michigan is now No. 1 in the Big Ten in total defense and No. 3 in rushing offense. Although the Wolverines (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) are probably out of the playoff race, losses Saturday by Ohio State and Penn State gave Michigan a plausible pathway back to at least a share of a division title. If Ohio State beats Michigan State next weekend and the Wolverines win their remaining games, they would end up at least tied for first place.

Easier said than done. Michigan plays at Maryland this weekend, then has another road game against Wisconsin. The Wolverines host Ohio State to wrap up the regular season.

An offense that had a tough time moving the ball earlier this season was productive against Minnesota. Higdon is fourth in the Big Ten in rushing -- and he's No. 2 if only games against conference opponents are counted.

"A lot of times, backs, they can pile up stats when they're out of conference," Harbaugh said. "To me, those statistics, what takes place in conference is a bigger indicator."

Michigan's big night on the ground was a credit to an offensive line that has had a hard time protecting the quarterback. Even on Saturday, Peters was sacked three times on a night the Wolverines didn't pass much, but the running game more than made up for that.

"I think the more you run the ball, the more tired the defense gets from just getting pounded and pounded," offensive lineman Stephen Spanellis said. "That can have a snowball effect. Those 4-yard runs, 5-yard runs, turn to 10-yard runs and then all of a sudden, you're breaking a 50-yard run to the house."

On Saturday, Michigan didn't have to wait to wear down the Golden Gophers. Higdon ran for 47 yards on the Wolverines' second offensive play, and he scored on a 77-yard run later in the first quarter.

"The impressive thing to me about the two backs in this game was they were making people miss inside the box," Harbaugh said. "When you have low safeties that are playing, getting down to linebacker depth, by the time the backs had crossed the line of scrimmage, there's going to be somebody unblocked."

NOTES: Harbaugh said QB Wilton Speight (cracks in vertebrae) has been cleared to do some throwing but not for contact.