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John Niyo

John Niyo: Edwards proves he's more than a routine 'next man up' for Michigan

INDIANAPOLIS — One more time Saturday night, Donovan Edwards took a handoff and cradled something precious.

But this time, it was the MVP trophy for the Big Ten Championship game that was hand-delivered by one of legends it’s named for, Archie Griffin. And after Edwards held the trophy up to the roar of a partisan Michigan crowd celebrating a back-to-back Big Ten championship inside Lucas Oil Stadium, the sophomore running back did what came naturally.

He gave thanks to God, and then to one of his teammates. The one who had carried the load for this undefeated Michigan team all season, right up until Blake Corum took a helmet to his left knee midway through a game against Illinois two weeks ago. Corum, the Wolverines’ workhorse running back and a leading contender for the Heisman Trophy, underwent season-ending surgery on his knee Friday. And Saturday night, he was missing, but certainly not forgotten after Michigan had polished off a 43-22 win over Purdue.

“Shout out to Blake Corum,” Edwards told the crowd, smiling as he paused so the fans could shout as well. “Blake Corum is the best running back in college football. He deservedly needs the Heisman. If he didn’t get hurt, he would easily (have) won the Heisman. So shout out to Blake Corum. This is for you, baby!”

And in that context, this is pretty remarkable, what the Wolverines have done these last few weeks, losing their star running back just when you figured they’d need him most and then simply running away with another Big Ten title, anyway.

At the postgame press conference Saturday night, sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy tried to explain how they’d done it, talking about a “next-man-up mentality,” as football players often do.

“That’s something that we preach no matter who goes down or what position goes down,” he said.

But when he’d finished with his answer, Jim Harbaugh had to interject.

“Blake is so good that it’s not ‘next man up,’” Harbaugh said.

“But when this is the next man up,” he added, turning to his left where Edwards was seated, “it’s that good.”

Stepping up

How good?

“I mean, this guy’s got 401 yards in the last two games,” Harbaugh said, shaking his head. “You want to talk about big games? This guy comes alive in the big games. Blake Corum has been a warrior, too, that same way. But I mean those are two supreme backs.”

And two huge reasons the Wolverines are back where they wanted to be now, bound for the College Football Playoff and another crack at a national championship, likely starting with a Dec. 31 semifinal against TCU in the Fiesta Bowl.

It was Edwards, of course, who was injured first, sidelined after the win over Nebraska with an badly-damaged thumb on his right hand. But after Corum went down, it was Edwards who was asked to step up, and did, with a remarkable performance in Michigan’s win at Ohio State.

He put the game away with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown runs of 75 and 85 yards to cap a 22-carry, 216-yard day, prompting Harbaugh to say later, “I mean, Donovan Edwards, he could have taken a knee in his game. Instead, he wore a cast. And now he's a legend.”

The legend wore that same cast again Saturday night here in Indianapolis, and in the end he reprised that starring role, finishing with a game-high 185 yards – 148 coming after halftime - on 25 carries. And it was Edwards’ highlight-reel touchdown run early in the third quarter, breaking six tackles in a 27-yard romp to the end zone that pro

“That was special," said Mike Hart, Michigan's run-game coordinator. "That’s the first time he’s done that. He told me, ‘I’m trying to be like Mike Hart in ’04.' I’m just proud of him. Can’t say enough about it, just fighting through what he’s fighting through right now. Just really giving it all for the team. He loves this team. No selfishness in him. If you heard his speech at the end, that tells you everything about him."

Second-half statement

It says a lot about this team, too, the way they keep coming through in the clutch, and dominating games in the second half.

“They didn't panic when the game was close in the third quarter,” Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said. “They came out and established their will and ran the ball right at us and created some big plays and extended the lead.”

And they did it right away, in fact. Leading 14-13 coming out of halftime, Michigan made a rather definitive statement on the first play from scrimmage.

The offense took the field with three tight ends, and all three came in motion from right to left before McCarthy took a snap from under center and handed off to Edwards. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound back headed to his left, where the trio of tight ends was crashing down on the line, and he juked cornerback Reese Taylor into an embarrassing whiff at the line of scrimmage. From there, Edwards was off to the races, finally getting run out of bounds after a 60-yard gain.

Big game, big gain. It’s starting to feel routine with Edwards, whose 67-yard touchdown run sparked a second-half romp against Penn State in October.

“This guy, his whole career, whether it was high school or college now, he just hits another gear,” Harbaugh said of Edwards, who also capped his high school career with a career-best 257-yard day to lead West Bloomfield to a Division 1 title two years ago. “He takes off to another level.”

At this level, that takes something special, obviously. And when you consider that Edwards practically has been playing with one hand tied behind his back the last couple weeks, it’s even more impressive.

“He played great," Hart said. "He ran hard. I thought their defense did a great job. He was getting hit early. He just kept fighting through everything. It’s hard to play with the injury he has. He can only carry the ball in one hand, and he did not put the ball on the ground. Just phenomenal to play through everything,"

Necessary, too, considering Corum’s absence. And while it remains to be seen if Edwards’ injury will require surgery as well – Michigan now has nearly four full weeks before its playoff game – that he was able to lend a hand the way he did made this celebration even more rewarding.

“Like Coach Harbaugh said, I believe that I rise to those occasions,” he said. “I thrive on that. It’s just easy, too, when I have tremendous teammates that I call my brothers around me. They show me love, they believe in me. And I believe that I’m made for the big moments.”

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