ANN ARBOR, Mich. – With all the offseason hype surrounding Michigan football’s new offense, fans certainly didn’t expect a true freshman and a converted linebacker to be leading the charge.
Michigan got off to a slow start this season in part because it couldn’t run the football. It’s no coincidence the team started to trend upward when Hassan Haskins joined Zach Charbonnet in the offensive backfield.
The Wolverines had very little success running the ball the first five games. After a solid showing against Middle Tennessee State in the opener, Michigan averaged 2.4 yards, 2.1 yards, 3.4 yards and 3.6 yards per rush against Army, Wisconsin, Rutgers and Iowa, respectively.
After the Rutgers game turned into a blowout, Haskins got nine carries for 45 yards in mop-up duty. He was limited to two carries for 22 yards against Iowa. As the fourth-string running back behind Charbonnet, Tru Wilson and Christian Turner, he wasn’t much of a factor.
Offensive struggles were the story of the season through five games. New offensive coordinator Josh Gattis was heavily criticized and Shea Patterson was maligned as the starting quarterback.
Then, Michigan made a change. The offense started to move the ball on the ground, rushing for 6.1 yards per carry against Illinois, 5.3 yards per carry against Notre Dame and 4.6 yards per carry against Maryland. (The outlier was Penn State’s stout run defense, which held the Wolverines to just 3.4 yards per carry.)
The most obvious change: Michigan started using two running backs instead of solely relying on Charbonnet.
Haskins exploded for 125 yards and a touchdown against Illinois, including an impressive 29-yard touchdown in which he showcased a combo of strength and speed. Charbonnet also benefited from a lighter work load.
The true freshman has been much more effective since he started sharing the starting duties with Haskins. After averaging fewer than 4.5 yards per carry in four straight games against Army, Wisconsin, Rutgers and Iowa, he averaged 5.3 yards per carry the next four games.
Jim Harbaugh learned he can’t overwork Charbonnet after a close call against Army. Michigan needed Charbonnet to carry the ball 33 times in order to survive, but that essentially cost him two games. He was held to just seven total carries against Wisconsin and Rutgers despite coming off a bye week.
Haskins allows Charbonnet to make the most of his carries. Charbonnet has averaged 14 carries per game since Haskins joined the regular rotation.
But Haskins is much more than just a change of pace to spell Charbonnet. In fact, he’s been Michigan’s best running back three of the last four games.
After averaging 10.4 yards per carry against Illinois, Haskins gained 149 yards on 20 carries against Notre Dame and 60 yards on 13 carries against Maryland.
On the season, Haskins has gained 426 yards on 72 carries.
Michigan has fallen into a routine that features Haskins carrying the offense most of the way down the field and Charbonnet finding the end zone. He’s already scored 11 touchdowns this season -- a record for a Michigan freshman.
Haskins only has two touchdowns, but he’s been Michigan’s leading rusher three of the last four games.
Heading into the season, fans expected the offense to be carried by a senior quarterback and a trio of star receivers. They certainly didn’t expect the fourth-string running back to be such a critical spark.
But Michigan found something that works, and it helped turn the season around.