Yeah, it’s Tuesday, I know.
I could give you all of the excuses that I have, but you’ve already heard them all before and none of them have expired.
And anyway, I’m not the one on trial here, Michigan is.
The Wolverines (5-1, 2-1) went on the road this past Saturday and defeated Indiana (3-3, 0-3) by a score of 27-20 in overtime. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t expected to be. But Michigan went in and won the surest way possible — with defense and the running game.
All B1G road wins should be celebrated, so there is no shame in sneaking one out in Bloomington.
This was the second start of the season for quarterback John O’Korn and it wasn’t terrible, but it also wasn’t very good. O’Korn’s inconsistency will continue to be a concern.
The running game was bolstered by Karan Higdon, who has established himself as Michigan’s last known hope on offense.
Defensively, Michigan was Michigan. Statistically, they had their worst game of the season, but they still only allowed 20 points and 278 yards of total offense. When that’s your worst, you’re pretty damn good.
That defense will be tested in a big way this weekend at Penn State. Running back Saquon Barkley is dynamic with and without the ball, and quarterback Trace McSorley is mobile enough to pose the same problems that Brian Lewerke and Peyton Ramsey provided each of the past two weeks.
The Wolverines committed 18 penalties in this one, but only 16 were accepted. On one single play three flags were thrown and two of the penalties were declined. Even Michigan State thinks Michigan was too undisciplined in this game.
My main concern for Michigan this coming weekend, however, is that the Wolverines will be looking past Penn State with Rutgers looming the week after.
When Michigan Was On Offense
Michigan managed 329 yards of total offense against Indiana’s defense, which was a little over half of the 596 yards the Buckeyes managed against them to open the season.
The Wolverines rushed for 271 yards on 44 carries (6.2 ypc) and scored three times on the ground. It was the best rushing performance of the season for Michigan. It was the first time since the season opener against Florida that they managed to rush for over 200 yards. The 271 yards is a 10-game high, dating back to last season. It was the third time this season that the Hoosiers gave up at least 240 yards rushing in a game.
Michigan was led by Karan Higdon, who rushed for a career-high 200 yards on a career-high 25 carries, scoring a career-high three touchdowns. I’ve said in the past that Higdon is Michigan’s best chance at a running game, and he certainly showed it in this one. He had a couple of big runs, including a 59-yard touchdown right up the middle. He then scored the winning touchdown when he was stopped up the middle in overtime, but then kicked it outside and Indiana lost contain in a very big way.
Ty Isaac carried the ball seven times for 38 yards. Chris Evans was a liability, running the ball eight times for five yards. He gained 21 yards and lost 16 yards on his eight attempts. At least with players who are boom or bust, there are booms. Evans is looking more and more like a wide receiver playing running back. There is still potential here, but he seems like he’d do better in a spread outfit. He has the potential to hit a home run, but he’s going to bat .098 with runners in scoring position.
Kareem Walker got a carry in this one pretty early on, so I wonder if that’s the staff simply growing dissatisfied with Evans. Walker gained eight yards and looked good getting to the corner. I have no idea what kind of vision or drive he has, but maybe he can push Evans or Isaac.
For now, however, Karan Higdon is John O’Korn’s best friend.
Speaking of O’Korn, he completed 10-of-20 passes for 58 yards. He threw zero interceptions on the day, which is more Indiana’s fault than to O’Korn’s credit.
He actually began the day okay, completing eight of his first 12 passes, spanning the first half and the first snap of the second half. From that point on, however, he completed 2-of-8 passes for absolutely zero yards. He completed just 1-of-6 attempts on third down in the second half, and the completion fell well short of gaining the first down.
I understand shutting down the passing game in order to run the clock out, but a coach needs to at least have the option to throw the ball with a lead. O’Korn isn’t making this a desirable option at the moment, however.
It was also disappointing that despite the outstanding rushing day, when it came down to crunch time, the running game failed. Leading 20-17, Michigan got the ball back with just 3:27 remaining on the clock. Indiana was out of timeouts, so all Michigan needed to do was move the ball 10 yards on three carries. Higdon went for 2, 2, and 3 yards, and then the Wolverines punted. Indiana then drove the ball 42 yards for the tying field goal. It didn’t cost Michigan this game, but it could cost them their next one. What good is rushing for 271 yards if you needed 274 yards to win?
When Michigan Was On Defense
Indiana rushed for 80 yards and threw for 198 yards. It was their worst yardage total of the season.
Quarterback Peyton Ramsey completed 20-of-41 passes for 178 yards, throwing two interceptions and one touchdown. He was able to keep a few plays alive with his legs, but his arm has yet to catch up with the rest of his abilities.
Slot receiver Luke Timian proved to be the toughest Hoosier to defend, as he caught seven passes for 95 yards. He was difficult to cover and caught everything thrown his way. The Wolverines shut down Simmie Cobbs, however, who had four receptions for just 39 yards.
Freshman running back Morgan Ellison had a few nice moments in this one, including a 31-yarder that he didn’t have the speed to finish.
I don’t know if Don Brown has dialed things back, or if the blitzing by the linebackers just isn’t as effective as it was earlier in the season.
Last week against Michigan State, the Wolverine linebackers had a season-low 1.0 tackles for loss. Against Indiana, however, that number dipped to 0.5. Each week in Big Ten play, the Michigan linebackers have become less and less disruptive. Khaleke Hudson — Jabrill Peppers’ replacement — can go entire quarters without being noticed.
I realize that everybody has a specific role in Brown’s defense, so sometimes positions aren’t designed to get the tackle, but Hudson is too quiet too often. I expected more from him this season. He has just eight tackles in conference play, compared to 16 tackles in the same number of non-conference games.
Defensive end Rashan Gary finally notched his first career Big Ten sack on Saturday. He finished with one sack and 2.5 tackles for loss. These were his first B1G tackles for loss in the last nine conference games.
As I mentioned above, Peyton Ramsey was able to find some room on the scrambles, but he was simply too inexperienced to do much with it. I expect Trace McSorley to be a more polished play-extender this weekend. I also expect Don Brown to have one of his very best games of the year.
Lesser defenses have contained Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, so obviously Michigan could make life miserable for him. Do they have the lateral quickness to stay with him in the running game and passing game? That’s asking too much of Mike McCray, but there will be several different tactics for stopping Barkley.
The main tactic will be to simply let Mo Hurst eat.
The Michigan Special Teams
My biggest problem with the Michigan special teams came in the fourth quarter. With just over a minute to play in the game, Michigan was forced to punt from the Indiana 45-yard line. This was an easy opportunity to pin the Hoosiers well inside the 20-yard line. Instead, Brad Robbins’ punt went into the end zone and a Michigan holding penalty gave Indiana the ball at the 30-yard line.
Ideally, Michigan pins Indiana inside the 10-yard line and puts pressure on the Hoosiers without even having to put actual pressure on them. Instead, they get an easy 20 yards of breathing room and they made the most of it.
Robbins only put three of his nine punts inside the 20-yard line, which is a very disappointing number for a guy who never punted from inside his own 25-yard line.
What Does It All Mean
It means that this offense is going to go as far as Karan Higdon and the offensive line can take it.
The good news is that Higdon is the kind of tough runner that offensive linemen love to block for. They will give extra if they know the guy they are blocking for is giving extra as well. The guy who has no extra to give or chooses instead to be tackled by the first guy to show interest does not rally an offensive line together.
I’m not saying this group can become great, but they can mask some weaknesses with toughness and tenacity.
That being said, I don’t expect 200-yard rushing days to become the norm for this group. Indiana’s spread defense made for an easy afternoon for Michigan’s power running attack. Life will be more difficult this weekend in Happy Valley.
It also means that it’s almost time to see what redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peters has, because we know what the Wolverines have in John O’Korn and Wilton Speight, and it’s pretty much the same thing.
A night game in Happy Valley isn’t the best place to make a move, but why do we expect O’Korn to suddenly thrive in an environment that he’s never seen either?
O’Korn’s numbers actually look better on the road over his career than they do at home, so we’ll see what happens at Penn State, but to expect anything other than what we’ve seen the past couple of weeks is wishful thinking of the saddest order.
I’m interested to see what Peters can do. This is Jim Harbaugh’s third year at Michigan and if Wilton Speight is still the starting quarterback for Michigan in Harbaugh’s fourth year, then he has likely failed as a quarterback recruiter and developer.
At the same point in his Ohio State tenure, Urban Meyer had two quarterback signees of his own setting records and leading the Buckeyes to a national title. Sure, it took an injury to Braxton Miller to make it happen, but it still happened. Michigan has lost Wilton Speight and how are they responding?
Where is Jim Harbaugh’s signature quarterback?
Until we know the answer to this question, Michigan football will have more weeks like the last two.
You don’t need a great quarterback to win a national title, but you can’t have a bad one and hope to win anything meaningful. The fact that Michigan is still searching for average is not a great sign for the future.
Of course, it’s going to be hard for any quarterback to look good with receivers who can’t get open. Buckeye fans know this all too well. This is an unproven group of pass catchers for Michigan and they are still incredibly inconsistent.
Pinning all of the struggles on the quarterback isn’t fair because everyone has plenty of blame to share, but ask yourself who here is making their teammates better? The quarterbacks aren’t helping the receivers, the receivers aren’t helping the quarterbacks, and the offensive line isn’t helping much of anybody.
The defense, meanwhile, simply waits to be handed the manila envelope disclosing their next target.
Everybody is doubting the Michigan offense right now. People are seeing three more losses on the schedule. This is the kind of thing that can bring a team together. Players love haters, after all.
A win on Saturday night against a Penn State team that has played pretty much nobody would change everything for Michigan. It would put them right back in the national title hunt. It would re-establish Jim Harbaugh as more than just the guy who keeps finishing third in the Big Ten East.
Penn State is being placed on a pedestal this week, but why not view it as a tee instead?
Michigan has everything they need to win this game, provided they don’t lose it first.
The Road to The Game
Sept. 2 Michigan 33 – Florida 17 (1-0)
Sept. 9 Michigan 36 – Cincinnati 14 (2-0)
Sept. 16 Michigan 29 – Air Force 13 (3-0)
Sept. 23 Michigan 28 – Purdue 10 (4-0, 1-0)
Sept. 30 BYE
Oct. 7 Michigan State 14 – Michigan 10 (4-1, 1-1)
Oct. 14 Michigan 27 – Indiana 20 (5-1, 2-1)
Oct. 21 Michigan at Penn State
Oct. 28 Rutgers at Michigan (Rivalry Game)
Nov. 4 Minnesota at Michigan
Nov. 11 Michigan at Maryland
Nov. 18 Michigan at Wisconsin
Nov. 25 Ohio State at Michigan