What we learned against Indiana: Michigan refuses to put teams away

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Over and over I've said it: Indiana is an extremely pesky team that seems to give Michigan a run for its money each time they play. It happened again Saturday as the Wolverines blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead before defeating the Hoosiers in overtime.

Through six games, not much has changed with this Michigan team. Same old story: the defense is dominant and will keep them in every game, but mistakes and bad offense continue to drag this team down.

Let's look at the lessons we learned in Bloomington.

Lesson 1: Michigan refuses to put teams away when it has the chance

This was a lesson we learned in Week 1 against Florida, and it’s disappointing to see it resurfacing again and again.

In 2016, Michigan held late leads against Iowa, Ohio State and Florida State, but was unable to close out those games when they had opportunities to get first downs on offense or make big stops on defense. Against Florida earlier this season, the Wolverines settled for six field goal attempts and let the Gators hang around for virtually the entire game until (finally) a key defensive touchdown in the fourth quarter put the game out of reach.

On Saturday against IU, the Maize and Blue were up 10 when Lavert Hill picked off a pass with six minutes left in the game. The home crowd stood up and began filing out of the stands. It felt like the Wolverines had the game in hand and would run out the clock. But three plays and minus-seven yards later, Michigan punted to Indiana, who ran the ball back to the Michigan 20 yard-line, leading to a Hoosier touchdown.

After narrowly giving up an onside recovery to Indiana, the Wolverines got the ball back with 3:27 remaining. Alas, another opportunity to put the Hoosiers away. Nope. Again, three plays later, Michigan punted to IU, who used its final drive to add a field goal and send the game to overtime.

The Wolverines very much escaped the Hoosiers (again). They got lucky. This conservative play-calling in the fourth quarter, in future contests, will only serve to keep opponents in the game — as it’s done time and time again.

Lesson 2: Karan Higdon is the (current) answer at tailback

Before the season, it was Chris Evans. Then, after Week 1, it was Ty Isaac. He actually reigned as “the answer” at tailback for Michigan for a few weeks. Now, following an outstanding performance in Game 6 by Karan Higdon, it seems there is a new answer.

Will Higdon be the go-to back for the remainder of the season? Who knows. Michigan fans are quick to anoint players as reliable playmakers after one stellar game (see: Isaac after Florida and John O’Korn after Purdue). But I can say this: Higdon has good vision, above-average speed and has consistently, for the past three years, run hard on every single carry he’s been awarded. In that way he’s much like De'Veon Smith (only smaller and shiftier).

A long-term answer? Probably not. But Higdon could definitely be the consistency in the backfield that this offense needs right now.

Lesson 3: The passing game is a mess

I know, I know. This isn’t a new lesson that we are just now learning against Indiana. But right now, it’s all over the place and from week to week there isn’t one facet of the passing game on which to blame the struggles. One week it will be play-calling. The next it will be quarterback reads, or simply poor throws. The next week it will be receivers’ inability to get open.

Against Indiana, at times, it seemed to be a little bit of all of those. There were times when receivers were open and John O’Korn just didn’t see them. There were also some throws where O’Korn just didn’t deliver a good pass. And the coaching staff certainly isn’t helping. I completely understand the whole “establish the run to open up the pass” mindset, but the run seemed to be “opened up” on Saturday (44 carries for 271 yards) and yet O’Korn still only threw for 58 yards. Michigan seemed to only throw in typical passing situations, when the IU defense was ready to bring pressure.

Defenses still aren’t respecting Michigan’s ability to beat them through the air. Right now, Michigan only throws the ball when it has to, and that hasn’t exactly worked.

Lesson 4: The Michigan defense passed its test Saturday

Talk about bending without breaking. Sure, the Michigan defense allowed its first fourth quarter points of the season on Saturday, but put the entire game in context.

The Hoosiers were given 141 yards by Michigan penalties, and the Wolverine defense really only surrendered one complete IU touchdown drive in the game.

Late in the first half, Indiana marched down the field and came away with a field goal. Early in the third quarter, IU came out hot and moved down the field and found the end zone for the first time. In the fourth quarter, a long punt return set the Hoosiers up with a short field, which they used to add their second touchdown. And then, right at the end of regulation, Michigan allowed a 46-yard field goal that sent the game to overtime.

After a quick Wolverine score, the Michigan defense allowed Indiana to get down inside the five yard-line to try to send the game to a second overtime. And then they showed their grit, doing this:

I said it after the MSU game — this defense will keep the Wolverines in every game they play. Hopefully that’s still true against the Nittany Lions, who are up next.

Lesson 5: This team isn’t ready for Penn State

Maybe something will change from now until Saturday, when Michigan goes to Happy Valley to take on No. 2 Penn State under the lights in a “white out” game. But given the way the entire season has unfolded thus far, and given the way the Wolverines performed at home when they had two weeks to prepare for MSU, that isn’t likely.

But hey, maybe they’re due to make a statement?

Comments

Refuses? Or can't?

Offense has to have its best game of the season and the defense has to play out of their mind for us to win in Happy Valley. Probably still need PSU to spot us a couple turnovers as well or make mistakes on specialty teams, because man can they score in bunches.

32 games into the Harbaugh era at Michigan

and the Wolverines have yet to snag a victory as an underdog, and has lost a handful against decent teams where they were the favorite. I live in Cali where the Pac-12 games are on TV every week and that’s just shocking considering his record at Stanford, where he had some talent but nothing like his couple of recruiting classes at Michigan. The 2015 trainwreck of a class when verbal commitments fled in droves and Harbaugh didn’t have enough time to rescue the class before NSD is a huge factor. Those guys would be juniors now, imagine a talented 4 star player at every position group. Would that be enough to make a difference in all the close games over the last two years?
Michigan hasn’t been blown out since the 2015 Ohio State game. But the program is at a point where they should be winning those close games and joining the truly elite teams, shutting up the haters who love to whine about Michigan getting too much hype and attention in the national media and thus being over-ranked in the preseason polls. The 49-10 beatdown of Penn State looks surreal in retrospect, first dominant game on both sides of the ball against an opponent that, in retrospect, turned out to be damn good.
I wouldn’t put my money on Michigan beating the Nittany Lions in a challenging night game on the road in Happy Valley. But Michigan needs a big win to regain momentum. Recruits are noticing, at some point the offensive players decide something’s wrong with Michigan’s offensive (pun intended) system and the defensive players might decide they’re better off at programs that have a better track record winning the big games. Franklin has serious recruiting momentum at Penn State, we know what Urban Meyer does year in and year out. Beating Wisconsin doesn’t have quite the same glitter as beating the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions, Harbaugh’s not battling the Badgers for the same elite recruits the way he’s doing with OSU and PSU.
Blowouts against clearly overmatched opponents doesn’t help anyone, but the recruits are noticing Michigan struggling to cover the spread against mediocre teams that don’t have anything close to the talent on the Wolverine roster. For all the hype about Michigan sending 11 guys to the NFL last year, most were low round draft picks who aren’t making significant contributions. The 5 star and high 4 star recruits notice that, Michigan is seriously lagging in getting commitments from the top 100 or top 200 players. They really need some signature victories to turn that around or the program could very well be stuck in a chicken and egg cycle of relative mediocrity, never really joining the elite programs. The rest of this year will have a huge impact on the class of 2018 and 2019, which will determine the success of the program for the next half-decade.

We learned Jim Harbaugh knew what he was doing

when he selected Wilton Speight as his starting QB coming out of camp. John O’Korn had 1 great play Saturday, dropping a dime with an NFL throw to DPJ. But even that pass was ill-advised, seeing as it took a perfect throw to make the play.
Other than that play, he was locked onto his primary, and somehow couldn’t even see his 2nd read when only 2 reads were available, and the 1st Read was double-covered.
Just what is Brandon Peters doing these days?

Maybe...

All each game with OKorn playing poorly does, is ask why hasn’t Peters played yet? I mean the passing game is STAGNANT! I don’t see a reason not to give him a shot at this point. And for everyone who was jumping up and down trying to throw the OL under the bus, they seem to be improving. Something that we cant say about either QB play or Offensive playcalling. To paraphrase Peyton Manning, that offense is offensive.

I also learned that Kareem Walker is still on the team

and man, it was only an 8-yd run, but I want to see MORE Kareem Walker!

Kareem Walker

That run of his looked pretty good and I was really surprised that Michigan didn’t give him more carries.

Some reflections

>Michigan fans are quick to anoint players as reliable playmakers after one stellar game (see: Isaac after Florida and John O’Korn after Purdue).

John O’Korn was anointed long before that. In fact, I think it was after Wilton Speight was named the starting QB. As for Brandon Peters, it happened almost as soon as he arrived on campus.

>Lesson 5: This team isn’t ready for Penn State….

You should listen to The Wolverine podcast from Sunday with Chris Balas and Doug Skene. DS was telling CB that he was talking to a good friend of his that went to PSU and that they played together at the New England Patriots. In so many words, this friend of Skene said he thought PSU was beatable (by Michigan).

I havent heard too much annointing

Isaac after Florida, maybe. People were hopeful, since he had never lived up to the hype, ala Derrick Green. As for Okorn, very few were jumping on the Okorn bandwagon. Most people were optimistic, sure, but anointing as reliable I don’t think so. People still were remembering that horrid performance last year vs Indiana. They were just desperate for SOMEONE get the offense moving. As for Peters, a high 4* recruit who sat last year and hasn’t seen the field this year. Only times weve gotten any glimpses are practices and spring game, where he has played very well. Every game that Speight/OKorn fail to get the offense moving causes more, (Ive been here since Florida), to ask why isn’t he getting a series atleast.

Huh?

Harbaugh trusts his defense more than he does O’Korn. He was almost disappointed. Not much else can be drawn from this game except that Harbaugh really doesn’t trust O’Korn unless he has too after MSU. Whether O’Korn can re-earn Harbaugh’s trust in a week is unknown, but let’s hope so and that he proves worthy or it’s likely to be a very long evening.

Agree passing game is a mess.....

….but don’t really put it on playcalling that only throws on obvious downs.

O’Korn missing DPJ for a TD on first drive was a first down throw.

O’Korn’s miss of Gentry while deciding to throw to a double-covered Crawford was a first down throw.

Actually, looking at the play-by-play, there were a number of other first down throws. And there were a number of runs in what would seem to be obvious passing downs.

I think the coaching staff is trying to protect O’Korn as much as possible. He’s just making some bad reads and decisions.

We need something resembling Purdue JOK to have a chance against PSU. Offense is probably not going to figure it all out this week, so they’re going to need to discover their inner Iowa and play their usual stifling defense while being opportunistic on offense and committing no game-changing mistakes / turnovers.

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