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ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — In the eight months since Jim Harbaugh returned to Ann Arbor, Michigan fans have eagerly awaited his hard-nosed, physical brand of football.
After one game, it is clear Harbaugh has his work cut out for him.
The Wolverines managed just 76 yards rushing on 29 carries during a 24-17 loss at Utah last Thursday night, led by De'Veon Smith's 47 yards on 17 attempts. The offense did not record a run longer than 7 yards.
The lack of a consistent run game was one of the biggest criticisms under Brady Hoke, who was fired after four years, including a 5-7 record in 2014.
There was reason for optimism heading into this season. The entire offensive line, which showed marked improvement by the end of last year, returned, as well as Smith, Derrick Green and Southern California transfer Ty Isaac in the backfield.
Instead, the Utes' stout front seven stifled the Michigan ground attack, forcing Jake Rudock to attempt 43 passes. The graduate student threw three interceptions, and one was returned for a touchdown.
"I thought our guys really knew what they were doing and, for the most part, really executed what they were doing," Harbaugh said Monday.
But missed assignments and blocks killed drives and left Smith with nowhere to run.
"They can execute it a lot faster and a lot better," Harbaugh said. "They were kind of double-checking themselves during the play. Know this, boom go, react. But they were double-checking themselves and creating some hesitation. For the most part, they did a good job knowing what to do and then doing it. They just need to do it at a faster pace and a higher level."
Tight end Jake Butt said some play calls in the huddle may take as long as eight seconds for Rudock to complete, because of the multiple options and checks Harbaugh builds into his NFL-style system.
"We might have two run plays and a pass play and we can switch the direction of the play, kill the play and switch to a pass play, all based on how the defense lines up," Butt said. "That is some sophisticated stuff that you don't see a lot of college teams running."
Butt said the offense has put so much work in that the complicated system is second nature to them now.
Instead, Harbaugh sees a few tweaks he can make to the interior offensive line that should help open some holes in the run game.
"Sometimes our guards got in positions you never want to be in as a football player," Harbaugh said. "There is nothing that will get pad level down like the couple times we saw in the game where a man gets underneath you and lifts you off the ground. And then you have no leverage. You've lost all your power-producing angles. That is the best teacher."