Opinion: Michigan should explore tailback options against Illinois
ANN ARBOR -- Michigan is 1-0 in Big Ten play and appears to be peaking on both sides of the ball just as the league schedule swings into full gear.
Michigan State (1-1) and Nebraska (1-1), its stiffest competition for a Legends Division title, already were tagged with a loss apiece.
Things are looking up in Ann Arbor, with lowly Illinois on tap this week.
Except for one thing: Tailback production.
Michigan has preached it needs a productive Fitz Toussaint for its offense to be at its best. But Toussaint hasn't gotten the job done, and with Michigan State on deck in two weeks, it might be time to explore the options at tailback.
Toussaint, who averaged 118.0 yards per game after being named the featured back in the middle of last season, has yet to surpass 85 in any game this year. He has 53 carries for 169 yards -- an average of 42.3 per game.
He had just 19 yards on 17 carries in Saturday's 44-13 win at Purdue. His long was 6 yards.
He gained less than 2 yards on 12 of his 17 carries.
"Am I happy with it?" Michigan coach Brady Hoke said when asked about the tailback production. "No."
The Wolverines still have produced on the ground, averaging 208.4 yards per game. That's 29th nationally and fourth in the Big Ten.
Problem is, quarterback Denard Robinson has accounted for 64.9 percent of that production. He accounted for 77.3 percent of Michigan's rushing yards against Purdue.
Toussaint's struggles early in the season were attributed to the poor play of the offensive line. Now, the front has put together three consecutive solid halves of football, yet Toussaint continues to not find daylight.
He missed holes against Purdue, and spent too much time running laterally. He lacked burst when he did hit the hole.
Toussaint was a big reason Michigan won 11 games last year, and that experience shouldn't be discounted. There's still a role for him.
But Michigan should explore its tailback options against Illinois to try to find a consistent ground attack that can supplement Robinson.
The Illini (2-4, 0-2) have been dreadful this year. Michigan can't look past anyone in the Big Ten, but this is one of the most manageable games remaining on the schedule.
The following week, Michigan takes on Michigan State -- a flawed team, but one that has a history of success shutting down Robinson and the Wolverines' offense. Having a second option in the backfield is a must.
All the more reason to get a backup -- probably sophomore Thomas Rawls -- involved early against Illinois.
The coaches were high on Rawls in the offseason, noting his battering-ram style of play. He's seen limited action this year, but showed flashes of that potential.
He rushed for a 17-yarder on his first carry late against Purdue -- matching Toussaint's full-game output. He finished with four carries for 33 yards.
Getting Rawls some reps early against Illinois would help Michigan figure out exactly what it has in its backfield. Maybe he's the answer, maybe he's not -- or maybe he's part of the answer.
Offensive coordinator Al Borges detests using a tailback by committee, but perhaps getting both Toussaint and Rawls involved would jar something -- anything -- from the tailbacks.
And they're going to need it. For as good as the Wolverines feel after blasting Purdue, the key to winning a league championship is consistency.
Who steps up when Robinson has an off week?
So far, it hasn't been the tailbacks.