Michigan searching for offensive rhythm

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — For Michigan, the real season starts on Saturday.

Sure, there might have been Wolverines fans dreaming of a berth in the national-championship game, but those were dashed pretty quickly by Alabama. After that, the goal has been what Brady Hoke always said it was — a trip to Indianapolis for a shot at the Big Ten title.

If Michigan wants to get there, they are going to have to solve a major problem in a hurry — they need to start scoring more points. Other than a 63-point performance against hapless Massachusetts, the Wolverines have struggled to put points on the board. That was understandable against two top defenses like Alabama and Notre Dame, but even when Michigan played Air Force, it took a spectacular performance from Denard Robinson to overcome a sluggish game from the rest of the offense.

Robinson is what he always is — a thrilling player with major flaws. The Crimson Tide and Fighting Irish have been able to turn him into a pocket passer — a role where he struggles to perform at a Big Ten level. Against Air Force and Massachusetts, he was able to find space and use his world-class speed to make plays. That’s when he plays like a Heisman Trophy candidate.

Every team on Michigan’s Big Ten schedule will have seen the game films, and every defensive coordinator will be planning to adjust their pass rush to contain Robinson without giving him lanes to run. That’s easier said than done — Robinson only needs one small gap to turn a sack into a 75-yard touchdown — but it also exposes Michigan’s biggest offensive weakness thus far.

While Robinson is averaging over 100 yards a game on the ground, he hasn’t gotten any help from his tailbacks. Fitzgerald Toussaint rushed for over 1,000 yards last year, but missed the Alabama game after a drunk-driving arrest and has only averaged 50 yards a game in the last three. The Wolverines thought they had good depth at the position, but Vincent Smith has gained just 53 yards and made two key mistakes in the passing game, while Thomas Rawls has barely seen the field.

That lack of production has meant that defenses can focus on Robinson, because they don’t fear big plays from the running back. Hoke isn’t happy about that, and knows it needs to change starting Saturday at Purdue.

“Obviously, we want to establish a running game with the tailback,” he said. “It isn’t just on them, and it isn’t just on the offensive line — it is some of both — but we need to start grinding out yards. That’s how you play Michigan football.”

Tackle Taylor Lewan, the leader of the offensive line, has been the unit’s biggest critic all season. That didn’t change in the aftermath of a particularly poor performance against Notre Dame.

“In a normal game, we have two or three missed assignments,” he said. “Against Notre Dame, coach Hoke came in at halftime and told us that the second half was on us — we needed to step up. We had more success in that half, but it still wasn’t good enough. If we can keep improving like that, we’ll have a lot more success as a team.”

In an obviously down year in the Big Ten, the Wolverines have enough talent on paper to make a run at Indianapolis. But it won’t happen if Lewan and the offensive line can’t team up with Toussaint to create a credible running game.