On Oct. 24, Michigan looked like a team that might, just might, have found the missing ingredient(s) to challenge Ohio State for Big Ten supremacy. On Oct. 31, the Wolverines looked farther away than ever.
On Oct. 24, Jim Harbaugh looked like a coach who had silenced his most vocal critics. On Oct. 31, Michigan State beat Michigan 27-24, a defeat that just cast more doubt as to whether or not Harbaugh is the right person to get the Wolverines over the hump. This time, it appears a bit more legitimate.
To the former point, Michigan’s season-opening win at Minnesota created plenty of illusory hope, much of which was washed away last Saturday (and also last Friday, when Maryland beat the Golden Gophers in overtime). To the latter, Harbaugh is due for an extension after this season, and the answer of whether or not he deserves one isn’t quite definitive yet.
Either way, Saturday’s game at Indiana is a game Michigan more or less has to win. But it’s an unfortunate situation: the only reward for doing so — vis-a-vis the big-picture questions brought up in the previous paragraph — is being able to stave them off for at least another week. When the Wolverines beat the Hoosiers, it’s called taking care of business. They haven’t lost to Indiana since 1987.
The Hoosiers will come into Week 3 believing they have their best opportunity to end that streak since ... well, probably ever. They should. They’re 2-0, ranked No. 13 in the nation, and knocked off then-No. 8 Penn State in overtime in their season opener. Over the years, they’d gotten used to teasing that kind of breakthrough against the Big Ten’s best. Two weeks ago, they got it. This is a downright talented Indiana team, with a big-armed young quarterback, talented running back, deep receiving corps and a handful of studs on defense. A Hoosier win wouldn’t remotely be an upset.
And yet Michigan is, on paper, the better team, even when it’s reeling. The gap isn’t nearly as large as it once was, but it exists. It’s this type of matchup that the Wolverines, for all they haven’t been able to do in the Harbaugh era, have usually dominated. When they aren’t able to do that, like last Saturday against a Spartan team that lost to Rutgers, that begs the question: what are they even doing?
Before the Wolverines can concern themselves with anything else (like, let’s say, the future of the entire program); before they can even think of salvaging this season, they’ll need to stem that existential bleeding. That only happens with a win Saturday. Here’s how they can get one:
Can Michigan’s secondary rewrite the narrative?
This is a nightmare matchup for the Wolverines, plain and simple. They’ll be reliving the way Rocky Lombardi and Ricky White torched cornerbacks Gemon Green and Vincent Gray all game long last Saturday, for a long time.
Michael Penix Jr. is no Rocky Lombardi. He’s better. Ricky White was one player. Whop Philyor, Peyton Hendershot and Ty Fryfogle are three.
Penix’s numbers are relatively pedestrian — just 408 yards this season on 36-of-62 passing and four touchdowns to one interception — but that seems more like a slow start than anything. Last year in six starts, he was 110-160 for 1,394 yards with 10 touchdowns, four picks and a 157.6 rating. He might have the strongest arm of any Big Ten quarterback not named Joe Milton.
Philyor, who caught 70 balls for 1,002 yards and an All-Big Ten selection in 2019, seems likely to latch on to quite a few deep balls from Penix if he’s left on an island. Hendershot and Fryfogle both had over 600 yards receiving last year as well. They’re good enough to exploit any excess attention on Philyor.
One of two things has to happen Saturday: Don Brown realizes just how badly the Spartans exploited Michigan’s biggest weakness, and responds — maybe using uber-talented safety Daxton Hill in man coverage more. Or more zone coverage, perhaps. Brown’s Wolverines played more zone last season than any previous year under him. It seems like an adjustment Brown’s willing to make if it comes to that. It just might.
Because if Michigan doesn’t change at least something, it will be left hoping that Gray, Green and others show a whole new level. Counting on that feels slightly precarious.
Can Aidan Hutchinson, Kwity Paye and others get into the backfield?
Actually, a third thing could happen Saturday. It involves the Wolverine defense’s perceived strongest unit supporting its weakest, in a way that just didn’t happen at all against Michigan State.
A strong, aggressive pass rush can at least partially mask even the most severe deficiencies in the secondary. That’s the idea that Michigan hoped to rely on this season, with two of its top returning defensive players — Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye — starting at defensive end.
Hutchinson and Paye combined for 22.5 tackles-for-loss and 10 sacks in 2019. They looked sharp against Minnesota — especially Paye, who dominated to the tune of two sacks and three TFL — but neither made any stops in the backfield against Michigan State. The Wolverines, as a team, recorded just two TFL and no sacks.
With the problems that Michigan has in the secondary, it’s not a defense that can afford to sit back and react. It has to dictate the action and force opposing teams off-schedule, and the easiest way to do that is by creating havoc up front. The Wolverines have the players with a proven ability to do exactly that — they just need to, you know, do it.
Can the Wolverines find a rhythm on the ground?
Lost in Michigan’s gaudy 8.3 yards-per-carry average against Minnesota: over half of those yards came on two carries — a 70-yard touchdown by Zach Charbonnet and a 66-yard scamper by Hassan Haskins. Take those away, and the Wolverines’ average drops literally in half.
That still isn’t bad, and neither is 152 yards on 34 carries, which the Wolverines recorded against Michigan State. But that masks an unpleasant bellwether. Joe Milton has led Michigan in carries in each game this season, and without the big gains in the opener, he’d have led them in yards in both games as well.
When your running back room consists of Charbonnet, Haskins, Chris Evans and Blake Corum, and your leading rusher by carries and second-leading rusher overall is your quarterback, something is pretty clearly wrong.
Per Austin Meek of The Athletic, the Wolverines ran the ball 16 times on first down against Michigan State and gained one yard or less on nearly half of those plays. Many of those unsuccessful runs were gives right up the gut — a questionable strategy with an offensive line made up of four new starters; a group that struggled to open holes or get a push up front all game long.
Whether through play-calling, inexperience or just general inconsistency, Michigan isn’t getting the most out of its backfield right now. There aren’t any easy fixes, but putting players in a position where they can succeed would be a start — something Josh Gattis has done well when it comes to the Wolverines’ receiving corps, for starters. Charbonnet, Haskins, Evans and Corum simply have too much speed and power between them to waste it diving headlong into 1st-and-10 piles.