ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Earlier this week, Washington linebacker Jackson Sirmon proclaimed: “We’re going to stop the run. They want to run the ball, and we’re going to stop the run. We’re excited to do that, they have some talented guys running the ball. It’s one of those things that one guy, one guy is going to get on the tackle and everyone is going to flock to them. We need to limit yards after contact.”
Yeah, about that.
Not only did Washington not stop the run, but Michigan ran the ball over and over and over and over again with impunity — so much so that fans in The Big House started to get frustrated about the offense’s penchant for keeping things on the ground. But, eventually, it appeared to be appreciated by many, given that the Huskies just couldn’t stop it. The maize and blue accumulated 343 yards and four touchdowns pounding the rock.
After the game, Jim Harbaugh provided some answers as to why Michigan ran the ball 52 times while only attempting 15 passes. While he spoke at quite length about the topic, really, the answer in short was: because Washington couldn’t stop it.
“When you’re generating that kind of production on first down — the first down running game production was good,” Harbaugh said. “When we were second-and-6, that was rare. Most of the time, it was second-and-5, second-and-4. Just kept seeing it. They were having a hard time tackling those running backs — Hassan and Blake. They’re tough to tackle! We just wanted to keep going back to the well when that’s the case. Gotta make your opponent stop what you’re doing.
“Thought Josh (Gattis, offensive coordinator) did a good job of staying with that and even then attacking the C-gap really became — go at the C-gap. I mean, there were adjustments made. It wasn’t just we were running the same play. But as we adjusted, they adjusted. We were right there with them. And the offensive line did a great job of blocking the movement, blocking the adjustments. But Josh and Sherrone, both were really on it from the standpoint of hit ’em and hit ’em over there, come back, make them stop what you’re doing good then — just fastball, curve within the running game. It was very good, very productive. We had no turnovers. Good stuff.”
The offense went from frustrating to one to appreciate early in the second half, when on Michigan’s first possession out of the gates, it ran the ball eight straight times for 73 yards and the touchdown that would officially put the game out of reach.
While Harbaugh gave credit to the backs for what they were able to do, there was a lot he obviously liked about those who blocked for them along the way.
“Yeah, the line really did a great job,” Harbaugh said. “Obviously, runs for 343 yards, that’s gonna be the case. But it was even more than that. Washington kept changing their defense from four-down to three-down, bear to strong safety SAM blitz, corner blitz and double corner blitz. They were doing everything they could. But they were just having a hard time tackling the backs. Hassan, Blake and then the way our offensive line was, when they started bringing the edge pressure, there were some real creases in between the tackles. Our guys hit them. Blake hit the big long one. Both backs — Hassan was 150 and some change and Blake was 170s or 180, even. Very impressive. Very impressive.
“I think guys like those veteran players — Stueber, Hayes, Vastardis and then Keegan — they all played really well. And Zak Zinter, even with the club — couldn’t tell. Did a heckuva job.
“And the tight ends — can’t leave them out. There was so much adjusting going on because we were seeing so many different defenses throughout the course of the game. They were motioning. Things were moving fast and they were adjusting. I thought the tight ends played exceptionally well. I thought Erick All had some blocks that were great and Cade did a heckuva job managing everything. Did a great job pulling the one in the second half, late in the fourth quarter. All-in-all really strong, really strong, strong win. I could say that about the offense, the defense and the special teams.”
So, was that in the game plan for Michigan to run with impunity? To some degree, yes.
While it didn’t seem likely that the Wolverines were intending on running 52 times against Washington going in, Harbaugh knew that the inverse wasn’t going to happen, where Michigan would pass the ball constantly. And it worked out in the best way possible.
“Going into the game, we’re not gonna win by throwing the ball outside the numbers. Those corners are really good. We were gonna fare a lot better running the ball 52 times than throwing the ball 52 times. And our guys are good, they came up with the plays when they had to. And they didn’t stop the running game. We knew they had a good defense — we watched the Montana game. Their defense played extremely well. Told you we were gonna lean on Hassan and Blake — they’re that good, too. We’ve got good players in the passing game. We know our guys can catch the ball, run routes, we can throw it. But it was just so good in the running game, it felt good to take it away.”