The Michigan Wolverines have had many ups and downs since Jim Harbaugh took over as head coach. But they are riding high off their first Big Ten Championship, first win over Ohio State and first College Football Playoff in Harbaugh’s regime.
This offseason, it seems like the perfect time for reflection to remember how Michigan got here after several bumpy years. Over the next 10 weeks, we will be releasing our top 10 games of the Jim Harbaugh era, with new editions coming out on Sundays.
Several games were evaluated based on five categories: Highlight Play Score, Historical Significance, Season Significance, Individual Performance and Pregame Hype. Tie-breakers were determined by which game had a higher Highlight Play Score.
This week, we will start off with the best single-game quarterback performance in the Harbaugh era, and maybe in Michigan history, with a double overtime, 48-41 Michigan win over Indiana.
Season Significance: 7, Pre-Game Hype: 3
Let’s take it back to 2015, Harbaugh’s first season in Ann Arbor. Michigan is three-quarters of the way through the season where it is 7-2 with hopes of a Big Ten title still alive. The team is still feeling the sting of losing to Michigan State at home because of a blocked-punt touchdown as time expired in a game that they let, literally, slip through their fingers.
A week later, Michigan barely hung on in the battle of the Little Brown Jug against Minnesota. The Golden Gophers went for the win with two seconds left and threw an incomplete pass on the 1-yard line, earning a gutsy road win for Michigan on Halloween.
After blowing out Rutgers, the Wolverines were looking ahead to a gauntlet of a three-game stretch to end the year at Indiana, at Penn State (who were undefeated at home) and The Game in the Big House. Any slip-ups would cost the Wolverines their hope of a Big Ten Championship appearance.
First up was an Indiana Hoosiers’ squad that had lost five straight. However, their ground game made them an incredibly dangerous team as they had two backs finish with more than 1,000 rushing yards that season (Jordan Howard and Devine Redding). This helped them hang around in games against the Buckeyes and No. 10 Iowa, each being a one-possession difference in games played on the Hoosiers’ home turf.
The Wolverines were the favorite in this one. They had won 19 straight against the Hoosiers and this wasn’t a contest between blue blood programs. So, there wasn’t much fan hype surrounding this one heading into what would be a fantastic game.
Highlight Play Score: 10, Individual Performance: 10
Quarterback Jake Rudock and wide receiver Jehu Chesson willed the Wolverines to this win. Rudock finished the game with 504 total yards of offense and six passing touchdowns. Chesson caught four of those scores, tying a Michigan record set by Derrick Alexander in 1992. He also had 207 yards on 10 receptions to go along with the house calls.
The scoring began in the first quarter on this 34-yard pitch and catch coming off a free play:
Indiana hung around early against the Wolverines with some long drives and a couple field goals made it 14-9 late in to the second quarter. Then, Rudock and Chesson met for the third time in the first half on a 64-yard touchdown that left Hoosiers’ defenders colliding with each other:
The Wolverines allowed a late first-half touchdown and went into halftime up 24-16. However, the second half started mighty ugly for the Wolverines. After losing 15 yards and going three-and-out, Michigan punted to Mitchell Paige who returned it 51 yards for a touchdown. The deficit was now just one point at 24-23. On the next possession, Kenny Allen missed a 42-yard field goal, and Indiana had the ball with a chance to take the lead.
They did so after Griffin Oakes knocked through a 24-yard field goal to give the Hoosiers a 26-24 advantage. Michigan responded with another blunder as it marched to the red zone, had consecutive false start penalties, and then Rudock threw what could have been a costly interception.
Thankfully, Indiana couldn’t take advantage and kept the Wolverines down just two points. A field goal from Kenny Allen regained the lead for Michigan after a 15-play, 78-yard drive that dug into the midway point of the fourth quarter.
However, the Hoosiers’ weren’t dead yet, running the ball nine consecutive times and going 69 yards for a touchdown and a two-point conversion. The Wolverines' defense was incapable of stopping the run, and Indiana took the lead with just over two minutes to go.
Rudock made some ballsy throws, hitting Jake Butt over the middle for a 16-yard pick up. Then, on 3rd and 3 around midfield, Rudock sent it deep to Chesson for another massive gain that put the Wolverines just yards from tying it up:
Now, Harbaugh deserves some huge scrutiny for how the next couple of plays transpired. There was over a minute to play after the Chesson catch, and the Wolverines jeopardized their chance at a win by running the ball and getting stuffed on three consecutive plays, moving the ball from the 1-inch line to the five-yard line.
With no time remaining, and on 4th and Goal, Rudock and Chesson had a little magic left:
The score forced overtime, but once again, the Michigan defense couldn’t stop Jordan Howard and the Indiana rushing attack. On 4th and Goal from the 1-yard line, Willie Henry was called for an offsides penalty and Jordan Howard marched it in for a touchdown. The pressure was back on Michigan’s side needing to put it in the end zone to force double-OT.
Rudock answered with his fifth touchdown on a pass to Butt for a 21-yard touchdown:
Michigan got the ball right back in the second overtime period and scored a touchdown on the first play. Rudock got an Indiana defender to bite on a double-move with a pump-fake and hit a wide-open Amara Darboh to take the lead, 48-41.
Indiana now needed a touchdown to avoid another devastating loss to a top-ranked opponent at home. For the first time all game, Michigan’s defense made crucial stops. On 4th and Goal from the 2-yard line, Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfeld threw his first ball since the 14:11 mark of the 4th quarter and Delano Hill did just enough to get the ball to the turf. Michigan made the comeback and won the game 48-41 after two overtime periods.
Historical Significance: 4
As exciting as this game was, it gets overlooked because it wasn’t a major opponent and it was in Harbaugh’s first season with the program. While it helped this team stay in contention for a Big Ten title, getting walloped by Ohio State at the end of the year made this game’s significance in the program’s history rather menial.
But it was the best performance by a quarterback so far in Harbaugh’s tenure in Ann Arbor, and Chesson tied the record for the most touchdown receptions in a single game. So there was some value, just not for the team as a whole.
Overall Score: 34/50
I love this game. It is one of the most enjoyable to revisit because of the high explosive offense from both sides. Rudock put together an unforgettable performance and clawed this team to a win.
Quarterback play has been such a hot topic for Michigan fans in Harbaugh’s career because it has been absent in games that should be won. Sometimes, you just need your quarterback to be the best player on the field and win you a ball game. Rudock did just that in this game.
But because of the way the season panned out and because Indiana was not a ranked opponent, the scales get tipped a bit. It’s the main reason this falls to No. 10 on this list.