In the wake of Michigan's season-opening loss to Utah, quarterback Jake Rudock bore the brunt of the post-game criticism, with his overthrows and interceptions widely viewed as the difference in the game. Starting running back De'Veon Smith didn't escape criticism, however. Behind an offensive line that struggled creating space, Smith and the Wolverines gained only 76 yards on the ground against the Utes.
Smith's toughness and physical running style have never been questioned, but after the Utah game, his speed and elusiveness were. In fact, there were some who questioned whether Smith had the requisite tools to be an effective lead back at Michigan. Jim Harbaugh smartly didn't panic and stayed with Smith against Utah (and similarly stuck with Rudock), and even praised his back's performance after the game, saying he thought Smith ran extremely hard and paid the price for some missed blocking assignments. But Harbaugh's kind words aside, for Michigan to get its offense going this season, it would need to get more out of Smith and the running game.
Things didn't look much different in the early going against Oregon State, however. Falling behind early, the Wolverines again weren't able to generate any kind of push off the ball. Predictably, Smith struggled behind the shaky line play. Michigan's slow start prompted ABC's Chris Spielman to join those calling into question Smith's speed and elusiveness. Granted, Spielman's comments were in the context of praising Smith's hard-running style, but for Smith, the hits kept coming.
But after a shaky first quarter, things started to change. With Michigan's defense holding Oregon State to only two yards over the final three quarters (granted, that number was aided by a muffed punt attempt by the Beavers), Michigan's offense - namely the offensive line and Smith - began to take over. With the offensive line finally getting some push off the ball, Smith was able to attack the line of scrimmage with a full head of steam rather than tip-toeing around, looking for holes that weren't always there. In doing so, Smith found his groove. That's not to say he no longer ran for contact, though, as Spielman later pointed out that Smith ran "with bad intentions" on his way to a career day, finishing with 126 yards, three touchdowns and at least as many helmet stickers. Saturday's game not only served as a coming out party of sorts for Smith, but it also provided a glimpse of what Michigan hopes its offense will become.
One game does not make a season, and Oregon State isn't exactly Alabama, so it's a little early to pronounce Michigan's running game fixed. But for a team that's been searching for its identity the past few years, it was encouraging to see Michigan do what Yahoo Sports' Pat Forde didn't think it could do - push people around. Saturday's performance might not end the questions concerning his speed or elusiveness, however, there is little question that Smith is the kind of pounder that Harbaugh covets. And providing his offensive line continues to play with its pads low, as Harbaugh is fond of saying, Smith should have plenty of opportunities to pound away as the season progresses.