ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- For all of Michigan's discussion of improvement throughout the season, from Denard Robinson as a decision-maker to both the offensive and defensive lines to the growth of Devin Gardner as a wide receiver, one part of the Wolverines has been unable to find any sort of improvement.
Its running backs, which entered this season as a likely strength with 1,000-yard rusher Fitzgerald Toussaint returning plus reliable third down back Vincent Smith, have been less effective than expected all season.
Toussaint is struggling, but don't expect Brady Hoke to make a change to Thomas Rawls or Justice Hayes or even Smith as a featured back. Hoke remained committed to Toussaint on Monday despite him rushing for just 42.2 yards a game and 3.2 yards a carry.
"I just don't think we've had enough opportunities for him," Hoke said.
Toussaint said earlier this season that he would work well with around 20 carries a game, which would be enough to help him find a rhythm, which can be important for a running back. However, rhythm has been elusive for any Michigan back other than Denard Robinson this season.
Robinson has rushed for 676 yards on 90 carries. In 102 carries, every other ball-carrier for Michigan has gained a combined 381 yards.
Michigan's coaches and players insist they still have confidence in Toussaint and with the entire running back corps, although Hoke said Monday he'd "be lying" if he said he wasn't concerned about the overall production of the group.
"When they take away Denard, I think Fitz will be successful," redshirt junior left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "I think those two in the backfield are very dangerous."
Most times, though, teams will plan to try and stop Robinson somehow. According to Michigan, not Saturday when the Wolverines encountered a new problem. For the past two seasons, teams have often sold out trying to stop quarterback Denard Robinson, the Big Ten's career quarterback rushing leader, from beating teams with his feet.
Yet Purdue decided to do something else. Michigan is convinced the Boilermakers gave up 235 yards rushing to Robinson because they didn't want to be shredded by Toussaint for the second straight season.
"A year ago Fitz ran for 170 yards against Purdue," Hoke said. "They weren't going to let him do that. They were very concerned with taking that part of our offense away. Denard rushed for 235 so something's got to give.
"What gave was Denard rushing for 235 and getting 25 carries. So there weren't really any golden opportunities because of how they defended the tailback position."
Whether that was the actual plan or not is up for debate. Michigan saw enough Saturday to be convinced Purdue chose stopping Toussaint over limiting Robinson.
Purdue coach Danny Hope disagreed somewhat. He said last season, his team's plan was mostly focused on stopping Robinson. This season, he wanted to make sure it was more diversified than focusing on the Michigan quarterback.
"The game plan was geared to defend Michigan's offense," Hope said. "Not just Denard Robinson."
Hope said he had no issues with his game plan last week and pointed to execution as an issue.
Michigan could not find running room for its running backs against Alabama, Air Force or Notre Dame either.
Toussaint hasn't had a 100-yard game this season and only one run in five games longer than 20 yards. But Michigan has to hope last season repeats itself.
At this point last season, Toussaint really hadn't found his rhythm yet either, not having a breakout game until the last weekend of October last season against the Boilermakers.
Two weeks later, he faced Illinois -- Michigan's opponent Saturday -- and had the best game of his career, rushing for a career-high 192 yards. For the sake of its season, Michigan needs to hope Toussaint finds his game against the Illini for the second year in a row.