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Michigan confident in run game despite absence of star Higdon

Michigan QB Shea Patterson and Michigan passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton discuss Patterson's decision to stay and more.

Florida has been unable to compete with Michigan’s high-scoring offense in their past two matchups.

In the most recent matchup at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas to kick off the 2017 season, Michigan won 33-17. A field goal followed by back-to-back pick-6’s gave Florida 17 early points, but the Gators faded in the second half as they were shut out on offense and couldn’t stop the Wolverines’ steady drives.

Michigan’s Wilton Speight was 11-of-25 passing for 181 yards and a touchdown, but the bulk of Michigan’s offense was due to running back Ty Isaac. Isaac averaged 10.4 yards per carry, accounting for 114 of Michigan’s 215 rushing yards and exposed major weaknesses in Florida’s run defense, which had limited teams to an average of 144.5 yards the season prior.

Florida also faced Michigan in the Citrus Bowl in 2016, the teams’ first meeting since 2008. In the 41-7 Michigan win, the Gators allowed the Wolverines 503 yards of offense, 225 rushing and two rushing touchdowns.

Fast-forward to 2018 when Michigan’s offense still heavily relies on the run game under coach Jim Harbaugh.

While not a major element in the previous two matchups against Florida, a key to Michigan’s high-powered offense over the past two seasons has been running back Karan Higdon. The Wolverines’ lead rusher in 2017 and 2018 recorded 1,178 yards and 10 touchdowns over 12 games and improved Michigan’s rushing average from 177 yards last season to 214 this season.

Higdon, a senior, is one of four Wolverines who have elected to sit out Saturday’s game in preparation for the NFL Draft. He will be joined by senior right tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty, junior defensive end Rashan Gary and junior linebacker Devin Bush, Jr.

Florida, meanwhile, expects all of its players to play.

Harbaugh said earlier this week that running backs Christian Turner, a graduate of Buford High School, and Tru Wilson have stepped up in Higdon’s absence.

Facing different running backs however doesn’t faze Florida.

“If you look at the guys behind (Higdon), they average 5-plus yards per carry themselves. They still got the same guys blocking,” Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “They’re physical up front. I think they got some talented young guys too, so I don’t think that’ll factor into how we play them or what we do. I think they’ll just give it to another guy.”

As Michigan looks to stay unbeaten in what will be the fifth game between the two programs, Florida players said Thursday the loss Michigan handed them in 2017 which opened what would become Florida’s worst season since 2013 and marked only the second time since 1990 Florida did not qualify for a bowl game is fresh in their minds.

Florida finished last season 4-7, firing former coach Jim McElwain at the end of October. It allowed opponents an average of 153.9 rushing yards and 195.3 passing yards. This season, the Gators are allowing opponents an average of 166 rushing yards and 173 passing yards.

Led by quarterback Shea Patterson and Higdon, Michigan averaged 212.9 passing and 214.3 rushing yards this season.

Michigan assistant head coach Pep Hamilton said controlling the line of scrimmage through the run game is part of their offensive identity and will be regardless of which running back is on the field.

“We have to replace a lot of production and that’s going to be a tremendous challenge within itself,” Hamilton said. “Not only was (Higdon) very productive for us on the football field, he was one of the leaders in the locker room. He’ll be missed, but we have guys that are playing behind Karan that are very capable of going out and having the production we’ll need to be able to do the things we were able to do with Karan and that’s run the football and protect the quarterback.”

While Hamilton was confident the absence of Higdon won’t be felt in the offensive scheme, players joined the sentiment that his absence creates an undeniable hole in team leadership.

“I think it's been more of a collective type thing with our guys, (tight end Zach Gentry), Chase Winovich, myself,” Patterson said. “I think we all try to kind of learn by example. Karan was our guy, our offensive leader, and we all kind of followed him.”

The 2018 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl kicks off Saturday at noon and can be watched on ESPN.