Karan Higdon stayed, and Michigan's running game took off

Karan Higdon does not often go backward.

Just seven times in all of 2017 was Michigan's top rusher wrapped up behind the line of scrimmage, and never for more than a couple of forgettable yards in the wrong direction scattered among a flurry of shoulder-lowering, forward-falling carries. Those seven plays added up to 12 total negative yards, but without them, Michigan's offense this fall might have looked entirely different.

The senior captain has emerged as the undisputed top back for a resurgent rushing game in Ann Arbor. With six consecutive 100-yard rushing performances, Higdon and the offensive line clearing the way for him have plowed a clear path to playoff contention as the No. 5 Wolverines (7-1, 5-0 Big Ten) enter November as committed to the running game as they have been in Jim Harbaugh's four seasons as head coach.

"Karan deserves a lot of credit," Harbaugh said earlier this week. "He's gotten tough yards and yards after contact -- yards more than what the play is blocked for. Karan has also shown a real penchant for the big play. He can break out of a pile of players as good as anybody. Knowing that's always a possibility, that's a huge factor in staying with the run like we do."

Higdon (831 rushing yards in 2018) is only a handful of those big plays from cracking the 1,000-yard mark in his final season of college football. He came up just six yards shy of that milestone last season. Had he reached 1,000 yards in 2017 -- had it not been for just a few of those scattered negative runs -- he likely wouldn't be suiting up for the Wolverines this season.

"I was very close," Higdon said this summer when he was asked whether he had considered jumping to the NFL after a successful junior year. "If I touched 1,000, I was leaving."

Higdon's proclamation at Big Ten media days might have caught some by surprise even more than the shiny, silver sport coat the normally understated back sported that day, or the revelation that he owns a pet snake named Poncho. He said he chose to see his 994 rushing yards as a sign that he had more to give at the college level and made clear his intentions to surpass 1,000 yards in 2018 -- a goal he could reach with a big performance against No. 14 Penn State at home Saturday (3:45 p.m. ET, ESPN).

The broader image that emerged from his interview this past summer -- one that has persisted through the first two months of the season -- was a picture of confidence. Those closest to Higdon describe him as goal-oriented, someone who has been unwaveringly sure about his goals since an earlier age than most.

Higdon graduated from Michigan in April, at the end of his third year on campus -- just as he planned before signing his letter of intent to come to Ann Arbor. He spent the summer working as an intern for a company that helps pro football players transition to new careers after sports, and in his free time he continued building two different youth-mentoring programs he started himself. He used his brief break from football during the Wolverines' open weekend this past week to spend time with his family, including the 3-year-old daughter who keeps him focused on careers after football.

Harbaugh said Higdon's maturity and sense of purpose spill over into his work on the field. The word that comes up most often when Higdon speaks about the success he's having this season is trust. He credited his Big Ten-leading 119 rushing yards per game (No. 8 among all FBS backs) to a deeper trust in his offensive line, his coaches and his own talent.

"Trusting what they're doing, trusting the holes that they are opening up and just following my talent," Higdon said. "Then trusting the playcalling and just doing my job."

The results have played a big role in Michigan's efficiency on offense. Whether it's Toby Gerhart at Stanford, Frank Gore in San Francisco or a runner like Higdon at Michigan, Harbaugh's offensive system operates at its best when powered by a reliable, downhill and decisive runner. And while others on the Wolverines' roster bring elements of a good rushing attack -- fullback Ben Mason can move piles, and tailback Chris Evans has big-play ability -- there is no doubt Michigan would have missed the well-rounded Higdon if he had managed to scratch out an extra 6 yards on the ground last season.

Now well on his way to becoming the program's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2011, Higdon is still not much of a fan of looking backward. He said he hasn't thought much about what life might have looked like this fall if he had escaped one more tackle or made one different cut a year earlier. He's tried to keep his focus on his two main goals this season: reaching 1,000 yards and winning a championship.

"I never second-guessed myself," Higdon said. "I made the decision, and it's up to me to make it the right decision."

So far, so good on that front. Reaching the first of those goals this weekend against the Nittany Lions would go a long way toward putting him and his teammates in position to reach the second.