What a difference a week makes.
Seven days after local and national media suggested this might be Jim Harbaugh’s best team after a convincing win at Minnesota and Michigan State media fanboys called an MSU loss to Rutgers “irrelevant,” everything changed. The Spartans pulled one of the biggest upsets in series history, Michigan fans were leaping off ledges while State fans were jumping back on the bandwagon, and there was no telling what the next week would bring.
For the Wolverines, they’ll test their rebound mettle with a game at Indiana, which enters 2-0 after a huge, overtime win against Penn State and a beating of Rutgers. U-M is hobbled, and it’s hard to envision a motivated bunch (especially after watching them sleepwalk through last week’s rivalry game in an empty stadium).
The Wolverines are somehow still a three-point favorite, but the Hoosiers have a legit shot to beat U-M for the first time since 1987. They’re talented at the skill positions on offense, though they have yet to meet their potential on that side of the ball, athletic on defense and will be extremely motivated to prove their fast start is no fluke and end Michigan’s dominance in this series.
Here’s what Michigan has to do against the Hoosiers to pull out a road win:
Don’t Allow Big Plays In The Passing Game
For crying out loud, don’t allow big plays in the passing game!
This was key No. 1 last week, too, and the Wolverines failed miserably. They didn’t get to the quarterback to help protect the cornerbacks, the corners got beat deep repeatedly after three-step drops — often on easy double moves — and the confidence was shattered by the end of the game.
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Worse yet, after a first half in which MSU quarterback Rocky Lombardi shredded the secondary, the defensive coaches didn’t adjust, letting the Spartans continue to dictate the action.
If a pedestrian group like that can do such damage, imagine what a duo like Whop Philyor and Ty Fryfogle can do. They’re one of the Big Ten’s best duos, and tight end Peyton Hendershot is another weapon.
Quarterback Michael Penix has been inconsistent, but he’s had open receivers in his first two games and he’s better than he’s shown. This will be a huge test for the Wolverines Saturday.
At the same time …
There will be changes on defense, from what we’ve gathered. That’s almost certain. Harbaugh doesn’t like to be embarrassed, and despite what’s going on publicly, there’s a lot of pressure behind the scenes to change it up, play more zone, etc. and not put the corners in position to fail.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean change everything up and install a completely new defense. Rich Rodriguez and Co. tried something similar a week before U-M played at Purdue in 2008 and were embarrassed by a kid (Justin Siller) who hadn’t even played the position.
Throwing everything they’ve been practicing out the window would be as silly as sticking with what didn’t work against the Spartans. There needs to be a balance, perhaps a position switch or two (more of sophomore Daxton Hill in coverage?), but not a complete overhaul at this juncture. Save anything like that for the offseason.
Have Early Down Success on Offense
The Wolverines were in way too many second- and third-and-long situations against the Spartans by running into the teeth of a blitzing defense, and the offensive line was — frankly — abysmal at times. They missed assignments, were beaten physically and had redshirt sophomore quarterback Joe Milton either scrambling or facing too much pressure to covert on third down.
U-M’s speed should be an advantage, just as it should have been (and was last week when they went to the perimeter) on the edges. But guys can’t miss assignments like they did last week and create tough down-and-distance situations.
It’s easier said than done given the injuries up front.
The Breakdown: Michigan Wolverines Football at Indiana
Michigan looked lethargic and disinterested in empty Michigan Stadium last Saturday, and that was against a rival. Perhaps the Wolverines took MSU for granted after Rutgers handled the Spartans a week earlier, but that’s no excuse. Michigan State was simply the better team in long stretches last week, and absolutely had a better game plan.
Harbaugh-led teams have bounced back from losses well during his tenure, but we have no idea what to expect. This was already a weird year, what with the delays due to COVID, etc., and the Wolverines are banged up and will be missing several key players Saturday.
How will they respond?
“Your goals that you thought were attainable — they still are by the way for Michigan — but all of a sudden you wonder where is the psyche of that team after what they experienced? Losing to their rival, all of the negativity,” ESPN’s Kirck Herbstreit said this week on his ESPN-based podcast. “The only thing people are talking about over this past weekend … you’re hearing a lot of ‘wow Justin Fields and Ohio State looks legit.’ And you’re hearing a lot of ‘what is going on with Jim Harbaugh? Look at his record against Michigan State and Ohio State at home.
“Can you imagine being a player? They’re going to have to block out, again, more negativity which has been surrounding this program for the last few years. Now they’ve got to get ready to go to Bloomington and play a team that’s kind of heading in an opposite direction as far as confidence.”
We’re about to find out what this team has left in the tank and what the program means to them.
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