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?