By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Nothing defines a potent offense better than having a pair of 100-yard rushers in the same game. And so when University of Michigan football starting tailback Derrick Green gained 170 yards on 15 carries and De'Veon Smith added 115 yards on only eight rushes in blowing out Appalachian State on Saturday (Aug. 30), it spoke volumes.
The Wolverines hadn't boasted a pair of runners breaking the century mark since Lloyd Carr was the head coach, and Brandon Minor (157 yards) and Carlos Brown (132 yards) did it in a 34-10 win over Minnesota on Oct. 27, 2007.
Having a pair of tailbacks capable of 100 yards means fresh legs can be kept on the field the entire game, and it also assures that a major decline in the rushing game won't occur if the starter goes down.
Michigan has not won a Big Ten championship since 2004, and that long absence from glory can be tied directly to the lack of a powerful running game. In the 10 years since, the Wolverines have had only 19 100-yard games from running backs.
Quarterbacks Denard Robinson (20 times) and Devin Gardner (two) have broken the century mark 22 times, but their scrambles were more the product of their quickness than a formidable offensive line. Their big games weren't generally the reflection of strong blocking but rather of a great sense of improvisation.
And in the last four seasons, Fitzgerald Toussaint accounted for the only seven 100-yard games by tailbacks for the Wolverines.
However, nearly every great Michigan team in the past 40 years had two or more outstanding tailbacks.
The dynamic duos began in 1974 and 1975, when Gordon Bell and Rob Lytle combined to rush for 100 yards 20 times; Bell had 13 and Lytle added seven. Lytle then set the school record by rushing for 1,469 yards in 1976.
In 1993 and 1994, Tyrone Wheatley and Tshimanga Biakabutuka reached 100 yards a total of 17 times. Wheatley had 13, and Biakabutuka had four. But then in 1995, Biakabutuka exploded for 1,818 yards -- which remains U-M's rushing standard.
And in 1988 and 1989, Tony Boles and Leroy Hoard reached the century mark a combined 16 times. Boles had 10, and Hoard added six. Jon Vaughn got stuck behind both of them in 1989 but broke out with 1,364 yards in 1990.
So, there is a definite precedent between 100-yard tailbacks and strong teams. They make defenses honest and allow passing games to flourish because priority must be given to stacking the line to attempt to stop the run.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke was asked about the importance of 100-yard running backs after the 52-14 win at Michigan Stadium.
"I think we wanted to run the ball and to have two 100-yard rushers is a good thing," Hoke said.
He was impressed with both Green and Smith, and third-string tailback Drake Johnson gained 28 yards on three carries.
"De'Veon would rather run you over than play tag and make you miss," said Hoke. "And Devin has a combination of both (abilities)."
However, no tailback thrives without blocking. They might get extra yards with power or moves, but they need more than a little help from their linemen and receivers. And Hoke liked what he saw from his starting front of center Jack Miller, guards Joey Burzynski and Erik Magnuson and tackles Ben Braden and Mason Cole -- the first true freshman offensive lineman to ever start the season opener for Michigan.
"We talked about taking them out the series before the last touchdown," Hoke said. "But, really, they hadn't played as much together. (Tight end) Khalid (Hill) has missed some of camp and getting him back in and playing with him and the combination of him and Joe, getting Mason as many snaps, especially with a quality guard next to him, I think was important.
"I thought Jack Miller did a really nice job with our offensive line -- between the communication I was very impressed with Jack and have been all camp. There was a sequence in the series, two series in the second quarter where we lost some yardage on a couple of runs, and that bothers me. I think we want perfection, and that's good because our standards should be high. That bothered us.'
But Hoke was pleased with the overall play of the line and pointed the importance of receivers making big blocks to spring big-gainers.
"There were a lot of big runs in there," Hoke said. "You watch Jehu (Chesson) block, (Amara) Darboh block, you watch 'little Fleetwood' (Dennis Norfleet) block, those guys open up a lot of the big plays."
They aim to follow in the tradition of great blocking receivers at Michigan such as Desmond Howard, John Kolesar and Chris Calloway.
It had been seven years since the combination of successful blocking and talented tailbacks produced two 100-yard rushers in one game. The challenges get stiffer after Appalachian State, with the Wolverines traveling to Notre Dame next Saturday (Sept. 6), but Hoke liked what he saw in the opener.
The running game, for the first time in years, appears to have potential.
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