5 keys to victory: Michigan needs Fitz Toussiant to take pressure off Denard Robinson (with prediction)
ANN ARBOR -- Offensive coordinator Al Borges has made it very clear: He thinks the Michigan offense is at its finest when Fitz Toussaint is producing.
And so far this year, Toussaint hasn't. At least not consistently.
The Wolverines' starting tailback is averaging only 50.0 yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry. That's down from 118.0 yards per game last year, and 5.7 yards per carry.
He is averaging only 12 carries per game entering Saturday's matchup against Purdue (4 p.m., BTN).
That means more of the onus for offensive production has fallen on quarterback Denard Robinson. While the senior is one of the most dynamic players in college football, he's also more susceptible to lulls when he has to shoulder the load himself.
“Like we’re saying every week, he’s got to be more and more of a factor," Borges said of Toussaint. "We got him more of a factor last game (against Notre Dame), and we’re hoping to do the same next game to take the pressure off the quarterback.
"We’re best here when the quarterback isn’t the whole show. We’re not as good when (Robinson's) the whole show, particularly with regard to the running game.”
Perhaps the greatest marker that the Michigan offense functions best when Toussaint is clicking: It averages 43.9 points per game when Toussaint rushes for at least 80 yards, and 24.0 points when he doesn't.
Toussaint has reached that threshold just once this year, rushing for 85 yards in Michigan's 63-13 thrashing of UMass.
He began the season with a one-game suspension following an offsesaon DUI arrest, an incident for which he faces sentencing Oct. 23. Since returning to the lineup, he has yet to regain his 2011 form.
He reeled off four 100-yard games in five weeks after being named Michigan's lead tailback last year and finished with 1,041 yards on the season.
Through four games this year, though, he has only 36 carries for 150 yards.
Michigan's rushing game has suffered, averaging only 184.5 yards per game -- sixth in the Big Ten. Robinson has accounted for 59.7 percent of that production.
The Wolverines were second in the league last year in rushing at 221.8 yards per game.
But coach Brady Hoke said he has seen signs in the off week that his junior tailback is ready to turn a corner.
“He’s been more downhill, in my opinion," Hoke said. "Getting him vertically is what we need to do and what he needs to do. It’s blocking the point a little better. It’s sticking your foot in the ground as a back and not seeing a ghost.
"Know where you want to go with it and be physical. Come out the other end of it.”
A look at four other keys to a Michigan win against Purdue:
Find cure for road woes
Ross-Ade Stadium isn't known for being an intimidating road environment. Only about 50,000 fans are expected for the game, less than half the number that packs the Big House every week.
But at this point, pretty much every road environment has proved problematic for Michigan.
The Wolverines are 10-0 at home in the Hoke era, but just 3-4 away from Ann Arbor. That includes an 0-2 mark this year, after losses in Dallas to No. 1 Alabama and at No. 9 Notre Dame.
They are averaging just 20.9 points on the road, as opposed to 40.1 at home.
Purdue is 3-0 at home this year, posting easy wins against Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Michigan before holding off Marshall last week.
The Wolverines are 3-3 at Ross-Ade Stadium since 1996. They won 27-16 in 2010, their last trip to West Lafayette.
Get off to fast start
Michigan has started slowly each of its first two games on the road, especially offensively. It trailed 21-0 after the first quarter against Alabama and squandered two red-zone opportunities to go scoreless in the first quarter against Notre Dame.
Ruling out the UMass rout, the Wolverines are being outscored 24-7 in the first quarter this year.
Its worst quarter offensively and defensively last year also was the first quarter, outscoring opponents 88-73. It held a 342-153 advantage in the other three.
Considering Michigan's problems on the road, and Purdue's improved play, the Wolverines can't afford to fall behind early.
That also would put more pressure on Robinson to pass, when Michigan would prefer to run.
Improve offensive line play
Robinson has been panned for his four interceptions against Notre Dame, and rightfully so. He didn't handle pressure well.
But the fact is, there was a lot of pressure on Robinson. The offensive line had trouble handling the Irish's blitzes, especially in the first half. Purdue likely will employ a similar strategy, and the Wolverines need to do a better job of giving Robinson time.
The Boilermakers also feature one of the better defensive lines in the Big Ten, paced by defensive tackle Kawann Short. He has four sacks, second in the league, and nine tackles.
Strong secondary play
Purdue hung 51 last week on Marshall, and although Marshall is not Michigan, the Boilermakers obviously have developed an offensive rhythm.
What they want to do is pepper defenses with short passes in space, which allows the wideouts and backs to do their thing. The key to stopping that offense is playing tight, aggressive coverage on the corners, while the safeties offer more protection deep.
Michigan's pass defense ranks first in the Big Ten, but will face its toughest aerial attack yet.
Purdue is off to a 3-1 start, with its only setback a 20-17 loss at Notre Dame. Its offense is pretty good, and its defense pretty good. It will beat some good teams in the Big Ten this year.
But Michigan is just a little bit better.
Expect to see the Wolverines adjust their offensive game plan to take some pressure off Robinson, a formula that will include more Toussaint -- whose breakout game (180 yards) came against Purdue last year -- and less turnovers.
The Wolverines haven't been a good road team, but will commit fewer mistakes and let their improved defense carry them to a win. Michigan 31, Purdue 24