Blake Corum returns to Big Ten title game, ready to keep Michigan football on March

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A year ago at this time, Michigan leading rusher Blake Corum was having surgery on a torn ligament in his left knee suffered in the final home game of the season. He attempted two carries against Ohio State the following week, but knew he could not keep playing and his season and Heisman Trophy hopes ended.

While his teammates played for a second straight Big Ten championship, Corum was recovering from surgery in Los Angeles, watching from afar. Now, a year later, Corum, the only player in FBS to score a touchdown in every game this season, is ready to lead Michigan (12-0) as it attempts to win a third straight conference championship.

The Wolverines, No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings, will face Iowa (10-2), representing the West Division, for the title Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. A victory ensures the Wolverines a place in the four-team playoff.

Corum, who has 22 rushing touchdowns, a new Michigan single-season record, is three rushing touchdowns from setting a new program career record. Anthony Thomas (1997-2000) has the record with 55 rushing touchdowns. “It was tough. I don’t know if missing the Big Ten championship was tougher or being on the sidelines at the TCU game (for the national semifinal),” Corum said this week. “I remember I had just got out of surgery. I was in California laid up in the hotel bed with my dad and just watching the game through a screen. I couldn’t do nothing but cheer and think about what I saw through the camera, through the TV.

“It was very emotional. I wanted to be there so bad. Everything happens for a reason, and look at me now, I’m getting ready, I’m getting prepared for Indy right now. It’s gonna be a heckuva time come Saturday.”

Corum this week was named the Big Ten Running Back of the Year for a second straight year and Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy was named the Quarterback of the Year. Corum is the fourth player to win the Big Ten award twice, and the only Michigan back to receive the honor since it was introduced in 2011. He has rushed for 976 rushing yards on 202 carries and has lost only 12 yards. For as lackluster as Iowa’s offensive numbers are this season — the Hawkeyes are last nationally in total offense — the defense makes up for it with its stingy allowances. The Hawkeyes are No. 4 in scoring defense, holding teams to an average 12.2 points per game and are No. 16 against the run, yielding an average 105.6 rushing yards.

For as lackluster as Iowa’s offensive numbers are this season — the Hawkeyes are last nationally in total offense — the defense makes up for it with its stingy allowances. The Hawkeyes are No. 4 in scoring defense, holding teams to an average 12.2 points per game and are No. 16 against the run, yielding an average 105.6 rushing yards. Michigan will play its first game of the season without top offensive lineman Zak Zinter, the Wolverines’ starting right guard, who suffered a broken leg against Ohio State last Saturday. While Zinter’s absence is significant, Corum said Michigan won’t alter the offense.

“We just have to stick to our roots,” he said. “I don’t think we should have to change anything. I don’t believe in that. I believe when something is working, you stick to it. Maybe you sharpen it up a little bit and change a couple things here and there, but I think we have to stick to our identity. “We have to play Michigan football. Obviously, Iowa is a heckuva defense. They’ve always been a heckuva defense. I remember when we played them there (last season) and we had to go to Iowa, they were great and they had Jack Campbell and Cooper DeJean. Going against a tough defense, you have to prepare for it. Just be ourselves, man. Don’t change anything at all. Just prepare a little more and come Saturday, hopefully, we show that.”

In mid-November, the Hawkeyes lost top defensive player Cooper DeJean for the season with a lower-leg injury, a huge blow for their defense and special teams. DeJean had two interceptions and allowed less than 50% completions on passes thrown toward receivers he covered, according to Pro Football. Linebacker Jay Higgins leads the team and the Big Ten with 109 tackles.

Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker is a finalist for the Broyles Award given to the nation’s top assistant coach and his defense ranks seventh nationally, allowing an average 279.9 yards a game. The Hawkeyes’ scoring defense is the program’s best since 1987 when the defense allowed an average 11.7 points. They’ve given up only two rushing touchdowns this season. Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter obviously isn’t coaching against Iowa’s defense, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t take something away from watching what Parker does and the results. Minter said he has watched the Iowa defense when breaking down shared offensive opponent’s tape. “They’re extremely disciplined, Minter said. “They play, I wouldn’t say vanilla scheme, that’s maybe what people think is that they’re really vanilla. But I think this year, particularly, they do a little bit more on defense than they’ve done in years past. I do think we’ve had some games, Penn State game, Ohio State game, this game, where I do think we’re playing against their defense. A goal of ours in those types of games is to be the best defense on the field. That’s definitely a goal of ours this week.”

Minter said he studied how Iowa responded after making an interception and applied that to the Michigan defense. The Wolverines have had four interceptions returned for touchdowns this season, Will Johnson and Keon Sabb each had a pick-six against Minnesota, and Mike Sainristil, who leads the team with five interceptions, had a 72-yard return for a score against Michigan State and a 71-yarder against Rutgers. “If you watch (Iowa), when they get an interception, they’re very well-coached in how to block, how to try and get points out of that,” Minter said this week. “In the offseason, that was a team we tried to study in that particular facet. Has showed up really well for us this year with our ability. Really thought Will could’ve scored on that play (on an interception against Ohio State). We’ve had four of them, so the guys have done a great job in that regard. We had a lot of good blocks on that play as well. They were a team that we looked at how they do those types of plays and certainly learned a lot from watching them.” Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh returns to the sideline Saturday night after a three-game Big Ten-imposed suspension for a violation of the league’s Sportsmanship Policy. Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti took the action in response to an NCAA investigation into an alleged sign-stealing scheme that has seen low-level staffer Connor Stalions, the architect of the alleged scheme, resign, and, more recently, linebackers coach Chris Partridge was fired. Sherrone Moore, the offensive coordinator/offensive line coach, was acting head coach the last three games.

For Corum, now, it’s about living up to all the goals and promises he made earlier this season that Michigan would be back in this situation playing for a third straight Big Ten championship game after beating Ohio State a third straight year and be on the cusp of another CFP appearance. “At the beginning of the year, I promised all these things. I promised to beat Ohio State, I promised to go to the Big Ten championship and this and that, and we’re doing it,” Corum said. “Winning a Big Ten championship would mean a lot because we’ve been through a lot. We’ve been called all types of names. People don’t think we’re good at football because of this and that and just so much going on, coach gets suspended for three games and linebackers coach gets fired, just so many things getting thrown at you. “But what do we do? We’re standing tall. We stood tall and we came together even more, and I didn’t think this team could come together more than we already were, because this is a tight-knit team. We handled it in a mature way. Winning this Big Ten championship would mean a lot, but I like speaking things into existence, so after we win the Big Ten championship, we still have a lot to prove. But I believe our team is great and we’re going against a great team in Iowa and I’m super excited about it.”


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