Michigan’s perfect record is over, but its season is far from it. With the chaos of college football claiming numerous top-15 teams as victims in addition to Michigan in the past week, the Wolverines remained at No. 3 in the latest CFP rankings and still control their Big Ten and CFP fate. However, lose once more, and all of it likely slips away for good.
The opponent that would like to ruin Michigan’s season is Indiana, the #CHAOSTEAM that is vying for its second consecutive bowl bid. The Hoosiers are .500, but they are not a team to be taken lightly, as Michigan should know from its most recent encounters from the Crimson and Cream. To learn more about this Indiana team and the challenge it will present to Michigan, we reached out to Kyle Robbins (@kylerrobbins), who is the managing editor of Crimson Quarry (@crimsonquarry) — SB Nation’s Indiana team site. In answering our questions, Kyle broke down the Hoosiers, previewed their upcoming matchup with Michigan, and offered a prediction.
So scroll below to read Kyle’s excellent responses and learn more about the Hoosiers!
Maize n Brew: Last year, Indiana participated in just its second bowl game in 22 seasons. This year, the Hoosiers are 5-5 and one win away from appearing in a bowl game in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1990-91. Has making another bowl game been the realistic goal for this Indiana team? And, if Indiana does it, will fans start to expect more from the program?
Kyle Robbins: As odd as this may sound, I think Indiana both exceeds and fails to meet expectations at the same time -- and that's horribly representative of this 2016 season, too. Getting to a bowl game in 2015 was massive for Indiana, but getting back to a bowl game after the players the program lost from last season would be real, actual progress. Consider Indiana's attrition from last season to this season on offense:
Nate Sudfeld, QB (NFL)
Jordan Howard, RB (NFL)
Simmie Cobbs, WR1 (Injured, Out for Year)
Jason Spriggs, LT (NFL)
Jake Reed, LG (Graduation)
Dimitric Camiel RT (Injured, Out for Year)
Heck, that's 6 of Indiana's best 8 offensive players last year! For the Michigans and Ohio States of the world, that's no sweat. For Indiana? The program hasn't historically been able to mitigate those kinds of losses off, like, 4-8 teams.
It would've been reasonable to expect a backslide. But here Indiana is again, with arguably a better football team top to bottom. That's putting itself in similar close-game situations with top teams. If they win either this one or handle Purdue at home next week, I think you'll see expectations maybe start to get more up in that 8-9 win range for a team that will return almost everyone of significance in 2017. Don't laugh.
MnB: For the most part, Indiana has beaten the teams it's supposed to and lost to the ones it's not. The Hoosiers (#53 in S&P+) are 0-4 vs. the S&P+ Top 50 and 5-1 vs. teams outside the S&P+ Top 50 -- the one loss being to #68 Wake Forest in a game they should have won. Yet, in the losses to S&P+ Top 50 teams, the Hoosiers were not put away easily, losing to Nebraska by five and leading Penn State in the final minutes. This continues a trend from recent seasons where they take top teams down to the wire but cannot deliver that one final blow to finish off an upset, e.g., 2015 Michigan. What has been the reason(s) for this?
KR: First problem here: Using the word any form of the word "reason" and Indiana football in conjunction.
Here's a fun little stat: Of the last 8 games vs. top-12 opponents that Indiana has played, they have led or had the ball with a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter in 7 of them. They have won zero of those games. The now-inevitable, set-to-Yakety Sax football heartbreak calamity occurs in a variety of ways. I'm not going to play football psychologist because I find that mostly to be stupid to guess what's going on in someone else's mind, but I think you surely have to chalk it up to Never Actually Doing It Before. Programs go through growth stages: Lose Big, Lose Close, Win Close, Win Big. There's a point where things happen so many times in so many different ways you have to assume there are team-wide mental cobwebs. You can point to so many different actual things: red-zone offense, unreliable kicking game this year, turnovers. Things happen that don't make any damn sense -- and they happen en masse. Wake Forest had a 8% win probability, per S&P. EIGHT PERCENT. INDIANA FOOTBALL IS SO DANG STUPID AND NON-SENSICAL IT WILL BREAK YOUR COMPUTER.
MnB: Last year when we did this Q&A, we asked you about why Indiana has had such a difficult time cobbling together an average defense because, from 2008 to 2015, the Hoosiers never finished better than 91st in Defensive S&P+. We discussed recruiting, depth, and the offensive pedigree of Indiana's head coaches. This season, however, Indiana has surged to 46th in Defensive S&P+ and may actually be better on that side of the ball than on offense!! Why has this happened? Where has IU's defense improved the most?
KR: More fun with stats: Michigan held Penn State's Saquon Barkley to his lowest output of the year -- 59 yards on 15 carries. Until Indiana held him to 58 yards -- ON 33 CARRIES. Fun, right?
Yo, Tom Allen's real good -- and you're gonna need to read this section in a whisper because I don't want anyone to know. Seriously, though. Wilson's hire of Tom Allen, an Indiana native who'd been at Ole Miss and created a pretty stout unit from scratch at USF. It's night and day, and the defense is probably still underrated across the country considering how the offense has left them out to dry so often this year. Old Indiana still rears its head from time to time when it comes to big plays. If not for those one or two big hitters, Indiana beats Penn State and Nebraska both -- and maybe handily.
MnB: Michigan's offense is coming off its worst performance of the season (13 points, 3.30 YPP at Iowa) and likely will be without quarterback Wilton Speight. Let's assume that Speight is out and that John O'Korn will be making his first start. If you're Michigan's offensive coordinator, how would you attack this Indiana defense to get back on track?
KR: See that last statement there. Big plays, with the deep ball -- and get them early if you can. Indiana's weakness is the vertical pass game at times. The Hoosiers have a pair of true freshman that start and will find themselves in pass coverage, alongside true sophomore safety Jon Crawford. It's an insanely talented group that's pretty good more often than not, but they'll give you the opportunity with a lapse or two with a coverage bust or a critical missed tackle.
Also, Indiana's defense has started slow -- particularly on the road this year -- and been excellent after halftime. They're averaging giving up less than a touchdown a game on the road this year after halftime. Get 'em early if you can, before Allen has a chance to adjust.
MnB: In last season's meeting, Indiana, led by Jordan Howard, tore through Michigan's run defense to the tune of 307 rushing yards (5.58 YPC) thanks to its use of tempo and outside zone. However, Indiana's run offense appears to have taken a big step back this year. The Hoosiers are 100th in Rushing S&P+ and tied for 92nd in YPC. Do they miss Howard that much? What reasons have led to this regression? What should Michigan expect to see?
KR: Howard's a hell of a back, but Kevin Wilson says it best: An offense is good as what it can block. Indiana's once-vaunted offensive line has been hampered by inexperience and injuries all season. All-American Dan Feeney missed a good chunk of the season, and has since had to kick out to right tackle in Dimitric Camiel's absence. The run game's improved since his return, and probably isn't bottom-100 bad. But Richard Lagow's early struggles and Feeney's absence made it real tough sledding for the Hoosiers early. Some wildcat looks with Zander Diamont and 280-pound quarterback/running back Tyler Natee have been wildly productive, but they're easy to gameplan against for Michigan.
MnB: Michigan arguably has the nation's best pass defense (#1 in S&P+) due to a disruptive pass rush (#2 in adj. sack rate) and two lockdown corners in Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling. On the other hand, the strength of Indiana's offense has been its aerial attack as the Hoosiers are 17th in Passing S&P+ and tied for 18th in YPA. How would you evaluate Richard Lagow's season? What are his strengths and weaknesses? And do the Hoosiers have a wide receiver that can gain separation from Lewis or Stribling down the field?
KR: This will be the test of Richard Lagow's life -- and he'll determine whether this game is close in the fourth quarter or not, unless Indiana's defense really limits John O'Korn. Strength for Lagow is assuredly his own arm, but he's got more than he can handle at times. Think poor man's Ryan Mallett. He's struggled with his composure and seems to get rattled when things start going poorly, he'll try to fit balls into windows where they just can't fit or overthrow wide open recievers by miles. If he's good, he can be really really good. If he's bad, he'll almost always cost Indiana points the other way.
Receivers, I don't worry about so much. Ricky Jones will likely draw the Jourdan Lewis assignment, but he's a quick, fast guy that's an excellent route-runner. Nick Westbrook is seemingly always open, due to his size. The pass game will face a stiff test, that's for sure.
MnB: There are two additional areas of concern for Indiana's offense, one of which you likely touched on when evaluating Richard Lagow's weaknesses: giveaways (22) and finishing drives (3.38 pts. per trip in 40). The Hoosiers are tied for 116th and 127th in those respective categories. Why have they been so careless with the football? And how can they finish drives against a Michigan defense that is the best with its back against the wall?
KR: Yeah, yeah, that's been the story of Indiana's season. This is probably a better team than what the record indicates -- they're very good when it comes to moving the ball across the balance of the field and stopping you from doing so. But they. Just. Don't. Convert. Yards. To. Points. Griffen Oakes is very clearly still shook from the Pinstripe Bowl (the kick was good) and Kevin Wilson's said as much, so it's limited the use of the Big Ten Kicker of the Year that used to be good from 60ish. But most of it in the redzone comes down to a lack of a go-to guy. I don't think Wilson fully trusts Lagow yet, and for good reason. Wilson offenses have always bogged down when they lack space to work, and this year's run game has made it extra noticeable. That's led to lots of gimmicky stuff in the red zone. Indiana broke the Rutgers 32 yard line ten times in that game before having a possession come away with points after entering that threshold. Ten times! That's absurd!
MnB: Indiana is well-known around the Internet for being the #CHAOSTEAM, and, as your site pointed out on Twitter earlier this week, that may have been born against Michigan. In the five Michigan-Indiana meetings since 2009, four of them have been wild. There was Donovan Warren's controversial interception in 2009, Denard Robinson's last-minute score in 2010, the 110 combined points tallied in 2013, and, well, let's not reopen last year's scars. Will #CHAOSTEAM arise again in Ann Arbor this weekend? Must we buckle our seat belts?
KR: Yeah, did a little research on that this week that surprised me. If you throw out the Zander Diamont game (a fifth-string true freshman starting at quarterback), Michigan hasn't really blown out Indiana in ten years. It's odd.
Listen. Michigan is a much better football team than Indiana, and is good in specific areas where Indiana is bad. But, listen, Indiana games are a formulaic hell. Everyone is the same. Kevin Wilson teams have been, for whatever reason, I have no reason to believe this one will be different. They will absolutely not win, of course.
MnB: Prediction time. What happens? Who wins? What is the final score?
KR: Indiana holds a lead somewhere between the 7:00 mark of the 3rd quarter and the 12:00 mark of the 4th quarter and loses by 21-24 points. Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.
There you have it! Kyle predicts that Indiana will keep the game interesting for the most of the contest until the Wolverines pull away at the end. What do you think? Are Kyle’s thoughts and prediction correct or incorrect? Share your comments below!
And a big thank you to Kyle for taking the time to answer our questions. Please make sure to check out his great Indiana coverage at Crimson Quarry and on Twitter!