There was collective concern inside Michigan Stadium last Saturday. Trainers walked off the field with Ty Isaac and up the tunnel to the Michigan locker room in the fourth quarter of the game against Air Force.
Isaac has been Michigan’s leading running back through the first three games of the season, amassing 336 yards on 47 carries. According to Michigan, that’s the best 3-game total by a Wolverines running back since Mike Hart had 502 yards in the opening three games of 2007. It’s also a nice 7.1-yard-per-carry average, the 18th-best average in the country, for the fifth-year senior who has seen his offseason dedication to transforming his 6-foot-3 body into a leaner, 228-pound version of itself pay off.
That body was walking off before its teammates had completed a 29-13 win to improve to 3-0. They completed it with Karan Higdon and Chris Evans splitting 8 carries for 59 yards, including a 36-yard touchdown run by Higdon, on Michigan’s final possession.
Coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday that Isaac is expected to play Saturday in the Big Ten opener when No. 8 Michigan travels to Purdue (2-1) for a 4 p.m. ET kickoff. Even if Isaac is limited, the Michigan running back situation is in good feet with Higdon and Evans.
Running back was one position coming into the season in which Michigan boasted playing experience. De’Veon Smith had been the starter and lead back last season, but the returning trio had combined to run the ball 234 times for 1,456 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Evans had 614 yards and 4 touchdowns on 88 carries, making him the favorite to start. He was the starter against Florida in the opener, but Isaac since has taken over that role.
Still, the trio has combined to rush for 564 yards on 103 carries. Higdon has the only 2 rushing touchdowns of the season for the Wolverines, but getting in the end zone has been an issue for the entire offense. Michigan has scored just 5 offensive touchdowns in three games. Isaac nearly had a pair of touchdowns against Air Force but both were negated. The first came in the first quarter when Isaac got around left end for an apparent 62-yard touchdown run, only to have it called back because he stepped out of bounds at the Air Force 30.
Isaac again got through the left side and down the sideline for what he thought would be a 45-yard touchdown, but it was called back because of a holding penalty against wide receiver Kekoa Crawford.
If Isaac doesn’t step out of bounds, and if Crawford isn’t called for holding, Isaac would’ve had a third straight 100-yard game and Michigan wouldn’t have had to settle for two of Quinn Nordin’s 5 field goals. Isaac finished with 89 yards on 16 carries.
Running backs Ty Isaac, Chris Evans and Karan Higdon have split the carries for Michigan this season. Here’s how those carries have worked out.
Higdon’s touchdown did stand up.
“It was a great cap to seal the win,” Higdon said of his run. “Our O-line did a tremendous job. Our fullback [Henry] Poggi did a heck of a job selling his block. It was a great [way] to finish the game.”
Evans brings a different dynamic to the run game. He’s a shiftier back, more elusive than the other two. He gained 9 yards on 2 carries on the Wolverines’ first drive of the game, and then picked up another 9 yards on his next carry on the next drive. Air Force safety Garrett Kauppila, however, stripped Evans of the ball during the tackle and the Falcons recovered at the Michigan 44-yard line. It set up a 37-yard field goal by Air Force kicker Luke Strebel that tied the score, 3-3.
Evans didn’t get another carry until the fourth quarter.
Harbaugh has sat players already this season after miscues, not as punishment but as a teaching tool. It’s allowed the player to take a step back and watch from the sideline perspective of how they can do things better. He did that with quarterback Wilton Speight in the opener against Florida after Speight threw consecutive interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. Speight sat for two series as John O’Korn ran the offense. Speight hasn’t thrown an interception since.
Donovan Peoples-Jones was taken off punt return duties in the second half against Cincinnati after a shaky first half of decision-making. Peoples-Jones was back returning punts against Air Force. He backed up Harbaugh’s decision by returning one 79 yards for a touchdown but also by twice calling for fair catches when the situation necessitated he do so.
The coach wasn’t buying Evans’ situation as the same as those two.
“It’s a position where we have three players. We do a rotation, we try to get the freshest back in there, go with the guy that’s got the hot hand,” Harbaugh said. “You’ve seen us. That’s what we’ve done with the running back position. Ty is the starter. Chris and Karan are going to play in every single game, so I don’t see it as the same as the quarterback position or the punt return position.”