ANN ARBOR, Mich. – In Michigan's 24-17 opening week loss at Utah, the start of the Jim Harbaugh era was dampened by an all-too-familiar inability to run the football. The offensive line struggled to open holes for starting running back De'Veon Smith, who was often hit in the backfield and finished with an average of just 2.8 yards per carry. When there was a hole, Smith missed it.
In the end, Michigan running backs gained just 76 yards on 29 carries. The longest run of the game was a seven-yard gain by Smith. Michigan's absent rushing attack resulted in a one-dimensional offense and certainly contributed to the three Jake Rudock interceptions that doomed the Wolverines' upset bid.
But Michigan flipped the script on Saturday against Oregon State, rushing for 225 yards on 48 attempts. Smith exploded for 126 yards and three touchdowns and Derrick Green even made an appearance, rushing eight times for 35 yards and a score late in the 4th quarter.
Smith showed the country why he landed atop the depth chart over former five-star recruits like Green and USC transfer Ty Isaac. The junior rarely goes down to the first would-be tackler who hits him and he almost always falls forward to finish his runs.
Smith's hard-nosed running style fits what the Wolverines need behind an offensive line that's excellent in pass protection, but much maligned for its inability to open running lanes.
But on Saturday, Smith benefitted from an inspiring performance up front. Lanes opened up the middle and around the edge as Smith beat the Beavers' defense into the ground. Isaac and Green picked up right where Smith left off late in the second half, combining for 70 yards on 14 carries.
Even fullback Sione Houma found a pair of holes, turning his two carries into 20 rushing yards up the middle.
By itself, the dismantling of the Oregon State's front seven means little for a Michigan team that struggled to run the ball during its eight-game Big Ten schedule last season. But Harbaugh and his staff are clearly putting an emphasis on the running game and dominating at the line of scrimmage, Michigan's greatest needs from a year ago.
The Wolverines' defense is one of the best in the conference and Rudock is the first true pocket passer to wear the Maize and Blue since Chad Henne in 2007. If this running game continues to improve, Michigan will be a tough team to beat during the Big Ten season.