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November 17, 2013
Notebook: Young RBs shine in win
In Saturday's 27-19 triple-overtime win at Northwestern, the Michigan rushing attack was far from dominant. But after the last two weeks, any move in the right direction, literally, is an encouraging sign.
The Wolverines rushed for 139 yards on 44 attempts, nabbing 3.2 yards per attempt against the Wildcats.
In consecutive losses to Michigan State and Nebraska leading up to this game, Michigan had combined for negative-69 yards on the ground, finishing in the red in both games, the first time in certifiable history the team has finished with negative rushing yards twice in a season, let alone in consecutive games.
And the Wolverines' success on the ground came from a somewhat unlikely source.
Fifth-year senior Fitzgerald Toussaint has taken the vast majority of the workload at running back this season, racking up 172 times for 601 yards (3.5 yards per rush) and 11 touchdowns.
Coming into Saturday's game, no other running back had tallied more than 40 carries through Michigan's first nine games.
Toussaint dressed for the game against Northwestern - but never saw the field.
"Fitz had been out most of the week, did some things a couple of days, it just wasn't enough," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "It was little injury related, but a lot of it too you've got to practice, get timing. I just didn't think he had enough."
Instead, freshmen Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith shared the tailback responsibilities.
And both set career-highs for both carries and production. Green finished with 19 touches for 79 yards (4.2 yards per carry), while Smith, who hadn't attempted a rush since the season-opening win over Central Michigan, ran eight times for 53 yards (3.5 yards per rush).
"I thought Derrick did a nice job," Hoke said. "He had some pretty good vision on some cuts, some holes in there. He's a big guy. I think he's learning to play a little lower with his pads. I thought De'Veon did a nice job, too."
The longest rush Michigan tallied in the Michigan State and Nebraska games was a nine-yarder by Toussaint in East Lansing.
Saturday, the youngsters broke off a few nice ones, with Green recording rushes of 22 and 23 yards, and Smith adding a 16-yard run.
"The o-line played a better game than usual," fifth-year senior left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "The running backs ran downhill, and I think Fitz could have done the same thing. But I'm more concerned about playing consistent now. We have two more games in the regular season. That's what we need to do."
Negative rushes have been a huge problem, as well. The Spartans and Cornhuskers racked up 26 combined tackles for loss against the Wolverines, and Michigan entered Saturday's game dead-last nationally in tackles for loss per game (9.0).
Michigan still surrendered 10 tackles for loss against the Wildcats, bringing their season total to an even 100, a number boosted by five sacks of redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner.
But the young tailbacks went backward just three times in 27 combined rushes. It might not be ideal, but it's a step in the right direction.
After the game, Hoke maintained that "Fitz is still our tailback." But the coaches certainly noticed what the young guys did.
"Your production always earns you more time, and if you're productive you could see that," Hoke said.
Special Teams Come Up Big
For good reason, the talk of Michigan's 27-19 triple-overtime win over Northwestern Saturday has centered around the Wolverines' incredible game-tying field goal as time expired.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke sent fifth-year senior kicker Brendan Gibbons racing out on to the field with the clock ticking down to zero - and he kicked a 44-yarder as time expired to keep the Wolverines' hopes alive.
"I was warming up, with [redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner] driving down the offense," Gibbons said. "[Junior punter] Matt Wile came and said, 'Hey, we've got to run down there just in case, because there are no timeouts.' They made a big catch, then Coach Hoke says, 'Hurry up, hurry up,' so we just ran in."
But that wasn't the only excellent play Michigan made on special teams Saturday, especially considering the miserable conditions.
In winds that topped 20 miles an hour and a steady rain that got heavier as the game went on, Gibbons, Wile and the rest of Michigan's special teams units turned in a solid effort all game long.
Gibbons went 4-of-4, hitting a 25-yard attempt in the first quarter, a 28-yarder in the fourth quarter, the game-tying kick as time expired and a 29-yard kick in the second overtime.
Wile, the Wolverines' option for longer field goals, missed wide on a 51-yard attempt in the second quarter - but in that wind, a kick that long is a gamble.
Other than the miss, Wile, who nearly lost his punting duties to redshirt freshman Kenny Allen early in the season after a bout of shanked punts against Notre Dame and Akron, had a tremendous day.
He punted six times for an average of 42.5 yards per punt and a long of 50 yards. Three of his punts landed inside the 20-yard line, including one that fifth-year senior wide receiver Joe Reynolds downed at the one-yard line.
"With that wind, I thought Matt did a nice job punting the football," Hoke said. "I thought his kickoffs were good, too."
Wile kicked off three times, booting one into the end zone for a touchback.
Fifth-year senior wide receiver Jeremy Gallon and senior wide receiver Drew Dileo, who slid into place to hold on Gibbons' final kick in regulation, didn't make any highlight-reel punt returns, but they did cleanly catch all eight Northwestern punts - not always a given in such sloppy weather.
Sophomore returnman Dennis Norfleet averaged 27.5 yards on two kickoff returns, which gives him 660 yards on 27 returns this season (fourth in Michigan single-season history).
"We got some yardage on the KO return, and Fleet and that team did a nice job," Hoke said. "Kickoff coverage, the one they ran to the field we had packed it into the boundary a little bit but a couple guys did a nice job staying disciplined. We wanted to go with two returners in the punt because they would spray the ball or rugby punt once in a while. Gallon and Dileo helped us with some hidden yardage."
Third Down Woes
When they have needed to make a play to move the chains in the last few weeks, the Wolverines have come up short.
In Saturday's 19-17 triple-overtime victory at Northwestern, the offense went 3-of-17 on third down and did not convert one until the overtime periods.
Since converting a respectable 7-of-11 third-down chances in a 63-47 win over Indiana Oct. 19, the Wolverines have been anemic on third downs.
Michigan converted 2-of-13 chances in a 29-6 loss at Michigan State two weeks ago, and the offense followed that performance up with just three conversions on 15 attempts in a 17-13 loss against Nebraska a week ago.
In the last three games, Michigan is a combined 8-of-45 on third downs (17.8 percent).
Unlike the games against Nebraska and Michigan State, the Wolverines did put themselves in good position on several third downs against the Wildcats, with five third downs with four or fewer yards to go in regulation.
But Northwestern stifled Michigan on all 13 third downs throughout four quarters.
Before this three-game stretch, the Wolverines posted a conversion rate of 49 percent (47-of-96). The offenses season-long conversion rate has dropped more than 10 points since then, down to 38 percent (54-of-142).
Encouragingly, Michigan moved the chains in crunch time, converting 3-of-4 third-down chances in the three overtime sessions, including redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner's five-yard touchdown plunge in the third overtime.
Gallon Goes Over 1,000
When a player is as consistent as fifth-year senior wide receiver Jeremy Gallon, it's easy to overlook impressive performances.
Gallon has caught at least one pass in Michigan's last 36 games, inching closer to the Michigan record, set by Biletnikoff Award winner Braylon Edwards (38). If Gallon keeps this pace, he will tie the record in two weeks against Ohio State and break it in the Wolverines' bowl game.
Gallon has caught at least five passes in each of the last five games, including Saturday's 27-19 triple-overtime win at Northwestern, in which he hauled in 10 catches for 115 yards (11.5 yards per catch), marking the second-most catches he has tallied in a single game in his career (behind his record-breaking 14-catch, 369-yard performance against Indiana this year).
Gallon went over the 1,000 yard mark for the year. He has 65 catches for 1,062 yards, which ranks eighth in single-season program history. He is the 13th player in Michigan history to hit the 1,000-yard plateau in a season (see chart).
Gallon needs to average 89.7 yards per game over the next three games to break Edwards' single-season record of 1,330 receiving yards.
Since Gardner took over the starting quarterback role at Minnesota last season, Gallon has caught at least five passes in 11 of 15 games.