College Football

Michigan loves to run the ball, but who will carry it vs. Ohio State?

4 days ago

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Sixteen years have passed since the last time both Michigan and Ohio State entered their season-ending clash with unblemished records, and the scene Monday inside the Towsley Family Museum at Schembechler Hall captured the anticipation. There were so many reporters and television networks in attendance for head coach Jim Harbaugh’s weekly news conference that a portable riser was installed for the overflow of cameras.

But anyone searching for new information about the health of tailback Donovan Edwards (undisclosed injury), tight end Luke Schoonmaker (undisclosed injury) or tailback Blake Corum (knee), the Heisman Trophy candidate who dropped out of Saturday’s narrow win over Illinois, was left unfulfilled. When asked if he could shed some light on any of Michigan’s injured stars, Harbaugh had nothing to share.

"No," Harbaugh said. "No update."

No. 3 Michigan survives scare against Illinois

RJ Young wonders if the Wolverines are a playoff-caliber team, and whether running back Blake Corum will miss significant time.

The largest cloud of concern hovers over Corum, the unquestioned focal point of this year’s offense with 245 carries for 1,457 yards and 18 touchdowns — all of which rank in the top seven nationally. On Saturday against Illinois, Corum absorbed a low, open-field tackle in the second quarter and immediately clutched his left knee in pain. The hit from defensive back Xavier Scott appeared to force a hyperextension of Corum’s knee, sending a crowd of 110,433 at Michigan Stadium into shock. After several minutes on the turf, Corum limped to the locker room under his own power. He made a brief return in the third quarter before removing himself for the remainder of the afternoon with 18 carries for 108 yards and a score.

In his postgame news conference, Harbaugh told reporters Corum was cleared to return by the medical staff because the knee was deemed "structurally sound" during halftime evaluations. Corum’s status for Saturday’s undefeated showdown against Ohio State (noon ET on FOX and the FOX Sports App) remains unclear, and there are similar questions surrounding Edwards, who was sidelined for the win over Illinois. The health of both players is a serious cause for concern in such a run-heavy offense.

"It obviously has an impact," left tackle Ryan Hayes said of playing without Corum for the second half of Saturday’s game. "He’s probably one of the best, if not the best, players in the country. Losing Blake is huge for us. But I think we had a lot of guys step up that we rallied around. We ended up finding a way to win, which is great for us."

Michigan’s 10-3 lead against the Illini evaporated in the third quarter after Corum left the game for good. A pair of touchdowns from Illinois tailback Chase Brown nudged the visitors ahead, 17-10, and the Illini maintained that advantage into the fourth quarter. The Wolverines needed a trio of field goals from All-American kicker Jake Moody to preserve their undefeated season, with the last of them passing through the uprights with nine seconds remaining.

While Michigan deserves credit for cobbling together three scoring drives in 12 minutes without its primary weapon, questions remain about what the offense will look like if Corum is unavailable or far less than 100% healthy against the Buckeyes. There are only three Power 5 teams with more rushing attempts than the Wolverines’ 487 carries this season: Ole Miss with 532, and Arkansas and Minnesota, with 511 each. And there are only seven Power 5 teams that have thrown fewer passes than Michigan’s 293 attempts: Syracuse (292), Iowa (286), Auburn (285), Oregon State (283), Kansas (282), Wisconsin (267) and Minnesota (236).

"I don’t think we’re going to change our identity this game just because Blake (might not be available)," Hayes said. "Obviously Blake is a huge part of our offense, huge part of our team. But I think our identity stays the same."

How effectively Harbaugh’s team can maintain that identity likely hinges on Edwards, a former five-star recruit plagued by injury woes the last two seasons. Edwards dropped out of Michigan’s win over Nebraska on Nov. 12 and didn’t see the field against the Illini last week. He also missed games against UConn and Maryland in September while only playing small portions of additional wins over Hawaii and Iowa. His snap count of 177 pales in comparison to Corum’s total of 448.

When healthy, Edwards has flashed the kind of explosiveness and versatility few on the roster can match. His average of 6.7 yards per carry is tied for 12th nationally among halfbacks with at least 70 carries, and Edwards is still fifth on the team in receiving with 14 catches for 179 yards and two scores. But he’s never carried the ball more than 16 times in a game for Michigan. Corum is averaging 26.4 carries per game against Big Ten opponents, and the Wolverines average 44.3 running plays as a team each week.

"I think everybody else is just going to step up (if Corum can’t play)," Hayes said. "I think that we’re up to the challenge, and we’ll do that."

Donovan Edwards goes 67 yards to the house!

Donovan Edwards has dealt with health issues this season, but he's also had big moments, such as this 67-yard TD against Penn State on Oct. 15.

The validity of that statement will truly be tested if Corum and Edwards are both unable to play against Ohio State. True freshman CJ Stokes (53 carries, 268 yards, 1 TD) is the only other scholarship tailback with more than nine rushing attempts this season, and running backs coach Mike Hart preferred walk-on Isaiah Gash to former three-star recruit Tavierre Dunlap when Michigan mounted its comeback to defeat Illinois. 

Gash is the son of former All-Pro fullback and Super Bowl champion Sam Gash, who later coached for the New York Jets, Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers. A junior from Bayport High School in the Green Bay suburb of Suamico, Wisconsin, Gash has drawn praise from Harbaugh for his aggression as a reserve kick returner and his toughness as an amateur boxer. He’s carried 19 times for 101 yards and two scores this season. 

The biggest play of Gash’s career was an 8-yard reception on fourth-and-3 during Saturday’s win over Illinois. His catch extended the drive that ended with Moody’s game-winning field goal. 

That’s the type of production Michigan might need from him this week.

"Be grateful for having the opportunity to play this kind of big game," Harbaugh said of his message to the team this week. "It’s where we’re at now. It’s just a real honor. It’s a real honor to be in this position to be able to test yourself physically, mentally, emotionally. We know it’s our toughest test of the year. And I think we’re going to find that we’re made of the right stuff."

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Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.


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