It's no secret that teams have been coached to force Denard to hand the ball off on the zone read. But despite Michigan's numbers advantage after the handoff, the running backs have only been gaining minimal yardage and occasionally tackled by the defensive end that was keeping contain on Denard. Part of the reason that the backs were having so much trouble is that just before Denard hands the ball off, the defensive ends are already starting to attack the running backs. Against Penn State, Denard broke out some freaky Juice Williams play fakes on the zone read, where he held the ball long enough to catch the defensive ends cheating like this. Denard's ability to execute this frequently will be key to keeping defenses honest and opening up running lanes for the halfbacks. One such instance was on a 2nd and 13 in the third quarter following a clipping penalty that set Michigan back.
I think a lot of people have been especially negative on the running backs this year when they've been pretty functional, at least on par with the production of the receivers. But despite teams nominally forcing Denard to hand the ball off on the zone read, they've still been cheating and finding a way to get to the running backs by reading Denard's play fake. Michigan has seen opponents try a couple of different things like this to contain the hand off. Notre Dame blitzed their linebackers to plug the holes at the offensive line in order to give the weakside defensive end enough time to come down the line and make the tackle on the halfback. But Michigan was able to counter this by using the play-action seam route that has become a staple of the offense. In this case, and presumably going forward, Denard's play fakes are going to take longer and force the defensive ends to truly make a commitment to either the running back or quarterback, opening up lanes for both players.