By JERAMY STOVER, Staff Reporter
Growing up in Ann Arbor, you get a good sense of the passionate rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State.
The football game between the two teams might only happen once a year, but the pure hatred of both fan bases lasts 365 days.
Sophomore Drake Johnson attended Ann Arbor Pioneer High School, located about 20 feet from Michigan Stadium. Both of his parents attended Michigan. His mother Pamela, is the Michigan cheerleading coach.
There is no doubt he is where he should be.
On Saturday, in Michigan’s biggest game of the season, the kid who could walk to Michigan Stadium from his high school had the best game of his career.
Johnson totaled 74 rushing yards and scored two touchdowns on 15 carries. He led the Wolverines with a 4.9 average gain per carry.
“Obviously (Johnson) was seeing things well,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “He did (an) extremely good job with his vision.”
With 7:34 left in the second quarter, Johnson scored a touchdown on a 2-yard run to give the Wolverines their only lead of the game.
The score wasn’t just another touchdown; it pumped life into the Michigan team. It was a drive that Michigan had to work for in order to score, a 15-play drive in which the Wolverines drove the ball 95 yards.
Those don’t happen often.
Ohio State started the second half by putting together a scoring drive that took less than two minutes, giving the Buckeyes a 21-14 lead.
With the momentum bleeding red, Michigan needed to strike back.
Michigan began the ensuing drive on its 25-yard line. Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier called three Johnson rushes to start the drive, which included an 8-yard carry on a critical third-and-1 situation.
Three plays later, Johnson picked up another first down, this time on a sideline pass from quarterback Devin Gardner.
As Michigan reached the Buckeyes 22-yard line, Nussmeier decided it was time for Johnson to play another role: quarterback. He received a pitch from Gardner, who then sprinted towards the sideline. Johnson hit Gardner with a pass that gained 18 yards.
The very next play, Johnson found the end zone again on a 1-yard run. This time; however, there wasn’t celebration after the play.
Johnson appeared to injure his right leg while being tackled as he piled into the end zone. He would not see game action in the rest of the game.
“I think he’ll be OK. I don’t know enough yet. We’ll see how it goes from here,” Hoke said, regarding Johnson’s injury.
After Johnson was injured with 7:41 remaining in the third quarter, Michigan would only rush for 19 yards. Only four yards would come from a running back.
Even though the Wolverines were playing a more desperate offense, it was clear the absence of Johnson was noticeable.
He was replaced by De’Veon Smith, who started the year as Derrick Green’s backup. Smith and Green are bruising backs that can plow their way through many defenders, but Johnson has the vision a successful running back needs to find the open lanes most players don’t see.
At 6-feet, 211 pounds, Johnson is smaller than his two companions but he uses it to his advantage. He shifts past defenders near the line of scrimmage, something Green and Smith have yet to show.
As the season now ends for Michigan, did a prolific career just start?
Since Green’s injury against Rutgers on Oct. 4, Johnson has rushed for 333 yards and four touchdowns.
After tearing his ACL as a redshirt freshman in Michigan’s 2013 season opener, this was his best season by far. And going into next season, Johnson will not only have sharpened his skills, but he’ll have built up confidence and experience from a breakout 2014 campaign.
Next year, Michigan will have a full stable at running back with Green, Smith, Johnson, and Ty Issac, who transferred from the University of Southern California in June.