Running into trouble

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It was true in the past: The Michigan football team could win in the nonconference season when most (or in some cases, all) of its offense came from quarterback Denard Robinson. But once the Wolverines hit the Big Ten grind and teams began to learn how to stop the fleet-footed quarterback, Michigan struggled unless it had another threat on offense. Last season, that threat was running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, and the same was expected this season.

But after a one-game suspension for the season opener against Alabama, Toussaint's homecoming to Ann Arbor and first game in the Big House was less than thrilling. Michigan beat Air Force 31-25, but Toussaint picked up just 7 yards on 8 carries and the Michigan offense continued to ultimately be just Robinson.

"It's important anytime we can get the running back involved -- it's huge for us," U-M coach Brady Hoke said. "When you see that involvement from the running game with him and Denard and complementing that with the pass game, it has worked out well for us."

But the truth is that Toussaint didn't have much involvement in the running game against Air Force, except that he was a possible threat. But that never materialized against the Falcons.

And though Robinson's performance on the ground against Air Force was much improved from the Alabama opener, it doesn't cancel out the fact that the rest of Michigan's running game is still struggling just two games out from conference play.

Following the Wolverines' loss to Alabama, left tackle Taylor Lewan said the offensive line took much of the blame for the lack of the run game. He said the 42 yards from the running backs was embarrassing. On Saturday, he said the 7 rushing yards not produced by Robinson was an awful stat, and again, he said it was the offensive line's fault.

But after watching the game film, Lewan backed off his criticisms.

"I think it was better than I first described it," Lewan said. "At first I was upset because the running back had 7 yards but people don't get that we also blocked for Denard, too. ... That's successful on our part, but we've got to get the running back going."

While it was more likely a combination of blocking, the reads and Air Force's quick defense, there's no getting past the fact that if the Wolverines offensive line doesn't pull it together and Toussaint doesn't get involved soon, Michigan will struggle in the Big Ten.

On Saturday, against a slightly slower and less talented defense in Massachusetts, the Wolverines will have the opportunity to get Toussaint started on the ground and hope that his progress continues against Notre Dame and in the Big Ten opener at Purdue.

If Robinson is the only player who proves he can run the ball, it will be a very long season for the Wolverines. But if the offensive line can pull it together and Toussaint can hit a few holes, Michigan will be much harder to game-plan for.

"That's definitely something that's on the offensive line, getting Fitz and the other guys more rushing yards," center Elliott Mealer said. "With the running backs, that's completely on the offensive line and I think we improved a little bit this week from the first game, but we have to get a lot better and start playing Michigan football like a Michigan offensive lineman should. We'll get that this week."