Why Michigan football fans should appreciate Hassan Haskins' rugged running

·6 min read

Shortly after Michigan football’s two top tailbacks had cleaved Northwestern for 229 yards and four touchdowns, one of them — Blake Corum — entered the interview room at the Crisler Center wearing sunglasses. The shades were black-on-black and wrapped around his face like Geordi La Forge's visor from "Star Trek: The Next Generation," though Corum is far too young to have seen the show when it aired.

Corum oozed cool because he’d just put on a show of his own against Northwestern, gouging the Wildcats’ defense for 119 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-7 win for Michigan. His ocular statement befitted the swag of a running back whose jump-cutting, double-juking carry early in the second quarter left two defenders grasping at air — a feat he matched on an equally breathtaking 24-yard slalom during U-M’s first drive of the second half.

Such outward confidence and conviviality dovetail with Corum’s style of play, which is akin to the board game "Perfection" — it’s only a matter of time before he pops free. He cuts a different figure than his bruising backfield partner, Hassan Haskins, who roadgraded his way to 123 yards and two touchdowns in Lincoln, Nebraska, two weeks ago, then showed up to the postgame news conference wearing a T-shirt and his backpack, ready to board the team bus. Haskins gained 110 yards and two more touchdowns in Saturday’s win over Northwestern while shouldering his highest volume of carries (23) since Week 2 against Washington.

Michigan running back Blake Corum celebrates a touchdown against Northwestern during the first half on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan running back Blake Corum celebrates a touchdown against Northwestern during the first half on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, at Michigan Stadium.

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“There’s something about the dynamic of Hassan one play, Blake the next,” coach Jim Harbaugh said after defeating the Wildcats. “They’re both great, but there’s some slight differences that make them both really special and hard to defend.”

What makes Haskins special is the courage to hurl his body into defenders with a verve approaching maniacal, especially in short-yardage situations. There is a misconception in football that larger running backs enjoy contact simply because of their size. That sentiment couldn’t be further from the truth. The willingness to collide with other padded, helmeted men at least 17.7 times per game — the carries Haskins is averaging this season — originates in a part of the mind reserved for toughness and absorption of pain. For Haskins to run as ferociously as he does speaks more to his mettle than his 6-foot-1, 220-pound frame.

Even with all the yards (602) and touchdowns (10) Haskins has contributed this season, the best measurement of his impact on Michigan’s offense is a tally of first downs. Haskins entered Saturday’s game with Northwestern having moved the chains 37 times this season, tied for 13th nationally and second in the Big Ten (behind Kenneth Walker III of Michigan State). He picked up nine more first downs against the Wildcats, including seven on third and fourth down.

Michigan Wolverines running back Hassan Haskins (25) runs by Northwestern Wildcats linebacker Peter McIntyre (40) for a touchdown during second half action Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021 at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan Wolverines running back Hassan Haskins (25) runs by Northwestern Wildcats linebacker Peter McIntyre (40) for a touchdown during second half action Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021 at Michigan Stadium.

Haskins' initials led to the nickname "H2" on account of his initials; that led to his dubbing as "Third-and-H2" by assistant strength and conditioning coach Justin Tress, because of how often he converts. Four of Michigan’s six scoring drives featured at least one first down from Haskins. (Corum moved the chains on two out of the six, meanwhile.)

“You know our love for Hassan and the respect we have for him as a football player and a physical football player,” Harbaugh said. “It’s every week now where you go, ‘You can’t have a more physical run than that. Can’t have a better play than that.’ Then the next week, there’s another one. ‘Wow, that’s even better.’ Then the next week. ‘Can’t possibly have another one.’ Then he does.”

Two weeks ago, Haskins electrified the Michigan sideline with an open-field hurdle during a rampaging 50-yard run against Nebraska. He seemed to blush when asked about it after the game, telling reporters, “I just did it, you know? I wasn’t even thinking.”

His dazzler this week came late in the first quarter on first-and-10 in Michigan territory. Haskins took a handoff out of the pistol formation and made a slight jump cut behind the line of scrimmage before plunging into a sea of bodies. Six Northwestern defenders converged on Haskins, whose legs continued to churn.

With help from his teammates, Haskins pushed and pushed and pushed the pile forward before squirting free for 19 yards, steadying himself with a hand on the ground for the final lunge. Haskins' feet appeared to leave the ground momentarily amid the cluster as he was swept along by the tide. He returned to earth and finished the run as Michigan Stadium roared.

The celebration was characteristically understated as Haskins calmly walked to the backfield for the next play. Tight end Joel Hongiford and quarterback Cade McNamara screamed in his face.

Michigan Wolverines running back Hassan Haskins (25) runs the ball against the Northwestern Wildcats during first half action Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021 at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan Wolverines running back Hassan Haskins (25) runs the ball against the Northwestern Wildcats during first half action Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021 at Michigan Stadium.

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“When you say all them guys working to go downfield, that’s huge,” Corum said. “I thought Hassan was really about to break out of that. The O-line did a phenomenal job, H2 kept his feet going and man, it was almost a touchdown.”

Five plays later, Haskins ran through another potential tackle to move the chains on third-and-2 and push the Wolverines into the red zone. Corum eventually punctuated the drive with a 1-yard run that gave U-M a 7-0 lead.

Haskins reached the end zone himself in the waning minutes of the third quarter after picking up another first down in a short-yardage situation. There was some pre-snap confusion for Michigan when McNamara and tight end Erick All seemed to disagree over alignment on first-and-10 from Northwestern's 13. The play clock neared zero as All finally entered a three-point stance alongside his quarterback in the pistol.

Behind them was Haskins, who appeared not to care about either the mix-up or what All intended to do as the lead blocker. He took the handoff from McNamara and launched across the line of scrimmage, hellbent on reaching the end zone. Contact occurred at the 4-yard line, and Haskins barreled 4 more yards for a score.

“He’s phenomenal,” Harbaugh said. “He’s something. He’s really special.”

Michigan Wolverines running back Blake Corum (2) is tackled by Northwestern Wildcats players during first half action Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021 at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan Wolverines running back Blake Corum (2) is tackled by Northwestern Wildcats players during first half action Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021 at Michigan Stadium.

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13. Send questions for his next U-M mailbag.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football rolling behind Hassan Haskins' physicality

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