Those who hoped that the Michigan football team would follow up an upset loss to Michigan State with a no-doubter against Indiana were left sorely disappointed Saturday.
The Hoosiers pushed the 19th-ranked Wolverines to overtime with a field goal in the final two seconds of regulation before Michigan sealed a 27-20 victory with a touchdown rush from junior running back Karan Higdon and a goal line stand that was capped off by junior safety Tyree Kinnel’s game-ending interception.
Next up for Michigan is a date with No. 2 Penn State in State College — a contest that has earned ESPN’s “College GameDay” treatment.
Before the Wolverines get there, though, here are five things we learned in Bloomington.
1. Hill can be a shutdown corner
If it wasn’t clear enough already, losing Jourdan Lewis may not be so detrimental after all.
Sophomore cornerback Lavert Hill has looked like a shutdown corner through Michigan’s first six games, and if you don’t want to take our word for it, then his numbers can speak for themselves.
According to Pro Football Focus, Hill has been targeted 21 times this season. On those targets, opposing quarterbacks have a 18.8 quarterback rating, while receivers have managed just eight catches with zero touchdowns. On top of that, Hill has recorded six pass breakups and two interceptions — the latest of which came against Indiana.
With just over six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Hill covered Taysir Mack perfectly before making an impressive play on the ball to pick off quarterback Peyton Ramsey. If not for an uninspiring offensive effort to kill the clock, Hill’s interception could have iced the game.
Hill had another pick on the Hoosiers’ second drive of the game, but it was called back on a questionable pass interference call.
The Wolverines now rank as the third-best passing defense in the nation, allowing 138 yards per game through the air. Hill has played no small part in that.
2. Running the ball, with Higdon, is Michigan’s best weapon on offense
It took five years, but a Wolverine finally rushed for 200 yards again.
Denard Robinson did so in in 2012, and on Saturday, junior running back Karan Higdon hit exactly 200 rushing yards on the Wolverines’ final offensive play of the game — a 25-yard touchdown dash in overtime.
Higdon earned the start over fifth-year senior Ty Isaac and sophomore Chris Evans, and averaged eight yards per carry. A handful of Wolverines mentioned last week that reestablishing the run game would be crucial to Michigan’s success, and it turned out they were right. And Higdon was the reason why.
Harbaugh complimented Higdon after the game for his ability to gain yards after contact. A handful of times against Indiana, Michigan’s offensive line failed to get the right blocks in place, making it difficult for Higdon to find the designed gaps.
Nonetheless, he created positive yards by breaking tackles and finding open space.
He leads the Wolverines with five rushing touchdowns this season, and as the passing game continues to struggle, it’s likely that the Wolverines will have to rely on their running backs to carry the weight against Penn State.
Higdon’s physical run game seems to be the best option.
3. Peoples-Jones is far more than a punt returner
The bad news for Michigan fans is that the Wolverines mustered just 58 yards through the air. The good news is that Donovan Peoples-Jones is coming into his own in the receiving game.
The freshman led Michigan with four receptions and accounted for 34 of the Wolverines’ passing yards — including an impressive over-the-head catch on 3rd-and-7 for a 17-yard gain in the second quarter.
That’s without mentioning that Peoples-Jones should have had a 60-yard touchdown reception.
In the first quarter, on 1st-and-10 from Michigan’s own 40-yard line, Peoples-Jones streaked through Indiana’s secondary and beat his coverage in a foot race on a go route, only to watch as fifth-year senior quarterback John O’Korn overthrew him.
Still, after a shaky start to the year serving as the Wolverines’ punt returner, Peoples-Jones has shown he has all the tools to become a viable receiving threat in the wake of fellow freshman Tarik Black’s injury.
4. Penalties are a problem on both sides of the ball
“I tell my six-year-old not to spill the milk, and gosh darnit, the next thing you know, he’s spilled the milk.”
That’s the metaphor Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh used in comparison to the program-record 16 penalties the Wolverines committed.
Just as he tells his son not spill milk, he tells the team not to commit penalties. But penalties happen anyway.
Michigan’s offense caused four of them and the special teams units had three flags thrown against them on returns.
On one play in the second quarter, the Wolverines’ defense was flagged three times on a single play. Sophomore defensive back Khaleke Hudson was called offsides, and redshirt junior defensive back Brandon Watson held his receiver.
Then fifth-year senior tackle Maurice Hurst rammed into Indiana’s quarterback late and was flagged for roughing the passer.
It’s not often that you see three flags on one play, but Michigan made it happen. It still came away with the win in Bloomington, but staying disciplined will be far more important against the three top-six teams remaining on Michigan’s schedule.
5. BOLD PREDICTION: Peters gets snaps against Penn State
It wasn’t too long ago that the Michigan faithful were calling for O’Korn to replace redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight under center.
As it turns out, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
O’Korn has started two games since replacing an injured Speight against Purdue and throwing for 270 yards and a touchdown. Since then, the results haven’t been encouraging.
With Speight still suffering from three fractured vertebrae, the Wolverines have averaged just 4.65 yards per attempt in the passing game. In the last two weeks, O’Korn has posted just 256 yards with a 47.3 percent completion rate and three interceptions.
For redshirt freshman Brandon Peters to see time as Michigan’s quarterback in State College, O’Korn’s struggles will need to persist. It’s hard to imagine Harbaugh thrusting Peters into the fire midway through the game, but a catastrophe wouldn’t rule anything out.
One thing is certain: O’Korn has played himself into a situation where the Wolverines need to at least entertain the thought of Peters.