When Jim Harbaugh watched film of De'Veon Smith's pile-slipping, safety-flipping 60-yard touchdown run from Saturday’s win against BYU, it wasn’t just Smith’s overpowering effort that caught his eye. Smith might never have gotten his chance to trample the Cougars’ secondary if not for a block from sophomore receiver Maurice Ways.
"Have you seen that play? That was a great block by Moe Ways," Harbaugh said Monday afternoon. "That was a touchdown block by Moe Ways."
Rewind the tape for most of Michigan’s long touchdown runs during the past two weeks and you will find a similar trend. Wide receivers have played a big role in the recent success of the Wolverines’ rushing attack.
Ways crashed the middle of the field and removed a safety from the mix seconds before Smith popped loose on his second-quarter score. Senior Jehu Chesson earned some serious brownie points with Harbaugh on the following drive. When quarterback Jake Rudock started to scramble from the 17-yard line, Chesson broke off his route in the back of the end zone and sprinted to launch himself into a BYU defender in enough time to pave the last few yards of Rudock’s path to the end zone.
Chesson was the beneficiary of a block from fellow receiver Amara Darboh in the same corner of the same end zone a week earlier. He sprinted 36 yards on an end around against UNLV and crossed the goal line a few steps behind Darboh, who was plowing a Rebels cornerback into the end zone nearly 40 yards away from the line of scrimmage. Chesson paid it forward a week later when he put the BYU safety on his back and helped Michigan to a 28-0 lead.
"That was one of those plays that was real contact courage," Harbaugh said of Chesson’s block. "He just went and made a real, hearty block. I was happy to see that. Darboh is doing the same thing, and Ways is doing the same thing at a higher level than most receivers you’re ever going to find."
Those three plays account for 103 of the 508 rushing yards Michigan has racked up during the past two weeks while developing their identity as a power running team. The Wolverines are now averaging more than 200 yards per game on the ground despite not having a back with true breakaway speed. Persistent blocking from wide receivers has helped to negate their lack of afterburners when they get to the second level.
From safeties to offensive guards to the receivers themselves, Michigan’s players say blocking on the second level isn’t complicated: Just get yourself between the defender and the ball. The difference between receivers who can block and receivers who can’t isn’t about technique or size. It boils down to effort.
"There’s little to no skill that goes in when you block," Chesson said. "It just shows you want to play. You want to play for Michigan, and you want to do everything necessary to make sure the team wins."
That jibes with Harbaugh’s description of his team as a group that likes to work hard. Michigan is already two wins from matching its season total from last year with expectations growing by the day. Players say it’s the effort plays that often go unrecognized that are making the biggest difference.
"(The receivers have) been blocking their butts off," senior guard Kyle Kalis said. "It’s been good not only for the offense, but I think the whole entire team has noticed. Everyone is just finishing through the whistle. That’s a big thing."
Big things begin with little things, and right now Michigan’s wide receivers are providing the little things the offense needs. That has been the difference between a team that tried to assert itself physically last season and a team that is doing so successfully through most of the month of September.