Week 1: Michigan takes first step toward reviving running game

Running backs combined for 341 rushing yards in opener

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Michigan and Appalachian State opening kick off, starting the 2014 season.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - When the clocks on the Big House scoreboards reached zero after a game that lasted over three hours, fans left having seen something from the Michigan football team that was absent for much of the previous season: a dominant rushing attack.

For years Denard Robinson carried a ground game composed of inexperienced offensive lines and mediocre running backs. But on Saturday two sophomores stepped into the backfield and set the tone for what will surely be an improved dimension of the offense.

At least it can't get any worse. Michigan probably won't run for minus 48 yards in a game this season or even approach the minus 21-yard mark it posted against Nebraska the following week.

In fact, if the show that Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith put on against Appalachian State is any indication, the running game could turn out to be a strength.

Clearly, it's far too early to draw conclusions about Team 135. Winning the opening game by 38 points means very little when it comes against an opponent making its first appearance as an FBS team. But there's no denying the rushing attack already appears to be much improved from a year ago.

Let's compare the performance of Michgan's running backs on Saturday to that of the entire 2014 nonconference schedule. Those four games included three opponents comparable to Appalachian State (Central Michigan, Akron, Connecticut), and Notre Dame, which ranked 74th in the FBS in terms of rushing defense last season.

Michigan running backs in 2013:
Fitzgerald Toussaint: 648 yards, 13 TD, 3.5 yards/carry
Derrick Green: 270 yards, 2 TD, 3.3 yards/carry
De'Veon Smith: 117 yards, 0 TD, 4.5 yards/carry

Through four games last season, Michigan backs ran for a combined 419 yards, 104.75 yards per game, including just one 100-yard performance, by Toussaint. On Saturday, running backs nearly reached that mark in one game, rushing for 341 yards. More importantly, Smith and Green each racked up over 100 yards and averaged over 12 yards per carry as a duo. Last season, the Wolverines didn't have a running back average 6 yards per carry in a game in their first 11 matchups.

Even though Saturday gave Brady Hoke just a brief glimpse of his team, the offense certainly looks more balanced. But that doesn't mean there aren't questions about the running game. In 2013 the question was whether anyone on the team could run the football. This year, it concerns which of the two young backs deserves to start.

The easy answer is to say that Green, who started the game on the field and finished with 170 yards, earned the top spot. While the former five-star recruit dominated for much of the contest, Smith showed more consistency.

Green stats vs. Appalachian State: 15 carries, 170 yards (11.3 yards/carry), 1 TD

Green broke two long runs for 59 and 62 yards, accounting for over 71 percent of his total yards. On the other hand, more than half of his rushing attempts, 8, resulted in gains of 1 yard or less.

Smith broke only one huge run, a 61-yard dash down the Michigan sideline, but never gained less than 2 yards on any of his eight carries. As a result, the sophomore finished with an average of 14.4 yards per rush, by far the best on the team.

Smith stats vs. Appalachian State: 8 carries, 115 yards (14.4 yards/carry), 2 TD

Again, Saturday's performance doesn't provide Hoke with enough of a sample to make drastic changes to the depth chart, but it should open fans' eyes to the competition forming in the backfield.

Throughout the program's 7-6 campaign last season, none of Al Borges' running backs could move the ball. Fortunately for his successor, Doug Nussmeier, the emergence of Green and Smith has a chance to result in the exact opposite.

Realistically, even though each features largely the same skill set, the two backs will share snaps this season. Nussmeier has a chance to keep both players fresh throughout the course of a game without sacrificing much talent in either case.

Fans can only hope that the running woes from last season are well behind the Michigan Wolverines.

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