As last Saturday’s matchup with Western Michigan approached, Michigan running backs Karan Higdon and Chris Evans spent the week talking about repeating history.
That history is their performance from a 33-10 victory over Minnesota last year, when Higdon touched the 200 rushing yard barrier, while Evans put up 191 on the ground.
Though they fell short of their own lofty targets, the duo’s impact on the game was strikingly reminiscent of that Minnesota game. Higdon broke out for 156 yards, mostly early in the game, on 13 carries, before Evans took over the lion’s share of work once Michigan went up big, eventually tallying 86 yards on 10 carries.
“Thought they played really good,” said coach Harbaugh. “Tip of the cap any time the running game goes for over 300 yards.”
While the headlines rightly focused on Shea Patterson’s brilliance in his first win, it was the running game that blew the door open for the Wolverines. Karan Higdon’s first four carries went for 2, 2, 4, and 4 yards. His next four combined for 118, blowing the door off of Western and settling any doubt over the result before the first quarter whistle could blow.
The overpowering performance didn’t end at Higdon’s removal. On Evans’ first play from scrimmage, the sophomore put a defender on the ground with a juke in the backfield before blasting through for a 27 yard touchdown. His next run only came from 2 yards out but he broke another backfield tackle to walk in for a second score.
“Whenever my name was called, I was ready to go,” Evans said.
That attitude is necessary for Evans after an apparent shuffling of his and Higdon’s partnership from last season. The two spent most of 2017 complementing each other, switching off drives throughout games.
Now, Higdon is the clear starter. He got the first eight carries on Saturday and out-numbered Evans 21 to two in carries against Notre Dame. But Higdon maintains that he and Evans need each other.
“I got a great teammate in Chris Evans pushing me each and every day and I push him so we get the best out of each other,” Higdon said. “Knowing that we have that 1-2 punch is great.”
And it’s hard to argue. From week four on, the two average 208.2 combined rushing yards in wins and 110.6 in losses. And those five wins were split, with Higdon leading Evans in yards three times and the opposite being true twice.
Game script and opponent have their impact but there’s a clear correlation. With Patterson under center, that correlation may weaken as Michigan can go to the air with more consistency.
But through two weeks, the Wolverines have one game with 58 yards of rushing and another with 308. Unsurprisingly, only one of those was a win.
While getting both Higdon and Evans involved is critical for Harbaugh and his staff, they cannot be effective without good push from the offensive line in front of them. Against Notre Dame, the Michigan front was constantly bullied, in both run blocking and pass protection.
Saturday told a different story.
“There were holes you could drive a car through,” Evans said. “And people in there with nobody to block, because everybody was blocked and taken care of.”
Added Higdon: “O-line, credit to them. They killed it today so shoutout those boys.”
He would know.
On his first breakout run, a 43 yarder to get Michigan into the red zone, Higdon was gifted a hole that nearly spread from hashmark to hashmark as fullback Ben Mason plowed past the line of scrimmage to singlehandedly block two would-be tacklers out of the play and the rest of the line took care of the Broncos’ front seven.
“It was close for our offensive player of the game,” Harbaugh said, “between Ben Bredeson and Shea Patterson but I’d give the nod to the offensive lineman. 300 yards of rushing.”
After a week of practice that was spent with laser focus on Western and less jovial banter than usual, Evans and Higdon know they need to maintain that in order to recreate — or improve on — Saturday’s showing.
“We can never be satisfied with checking boxes off,” Evans said. “There’s always something in there that we can get better on.”