BLOOMINGTON — Before Indiana even left its locker room, they were celebrating here.
The students weren’t allowed into Memorial Stadium, but they showed up in the parking lot to sing their fight song, to chant “We Want Bama,” and to serenade Michigan goodbye. Here, on a night where a 24-game losing streak was snapped, there will be COVID-19 safety protocols broken and memories made.
The Wolverines will be left to a long, silent trip back to Ann Arbor and a handy 38-21 beating at the hands of Indiana (3-0), a school it has dominated for three decades, to reflect on.
“You push forward, with toughness,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Every single guy here, every single player here, every single coach here has experienced that in their life where they’ve taken the adverse and turning it into an advantage.”
But after a week filled with cliches and insistence that the Wolverines (1-2) would bounce back from their loss to Michigan State, they came out flat, and now stare down the possibility of a calamitous season. It is their second straight loss, both as favorites, both games in which Don Brown’s defense seemed overmatched and unequipped to deal with a better, faster offense. And it was evident from the jump.
In the first half alone, Indiana completed drives of 74, 75 and 96 yards for touchdowns. All featured Michigan repeatedly jumping offside when the Wolverines tried to time the snap count, handing Hoosier quarterback Michael Penix Jr. free plays, two of which resulted in touchdown passes. All featured the defensive backs that got beat in coverage by the likes of Ricky White last week struggling to keep up with Ty Fryfogle and Whop Philyor. None featured a sack. Michigan’s defense has now gone two games without one, and saw star defensive end Aidan Hutchinson leave Saturday’s game in the first quarter.
Asked about the team’s struggles, particularly in the secondary, Harbaugh said it was about players trusting their technique and ability — what he at one point called their “innate greatness” — so that strong performances in practice would translate to the games.
“Third downs we had many opportunities to get off the field,” sophomore safety Daxton Hill said. “Penalties, lackadaisical things, we do need to fix those and play the ball a lot better.”
The offensive side wasn’t blameless either. Junior quarterback Joe Milton finished 18-of-34 for 344 yards and was lucky not to have thrown more than his two interceptions. Michigan ran for all of 13 yards. An offensive line that was missing two starters in tackles Ryan Hayes and Jalen Mayfield struggled all day, particularly in the run game. The Wolverines repeatedly put themselves into third-and-longs, then struggled to convert.
And when Michigan most needed Milton to step up, the deficit at 10 early in the fourth quarter and the defense having finally gotten a stop, he threw an ugly interception to Indiana’s Jaylin Williams. “Every snap he takes … he’s getting a lot put on him,” Harbaugh said. “Playing from behind and having to play in those kinds of situations.”
Nobody labored under the illusion that beating Indiana would be easy this year. Still, that does little to brace the impact of this.
Asked about the mood of the team, receiver Cornelius Johnson — the only offensive player to speak on Saturday — took a long pause. “I don’t really feel like answering that question right now, if that’s OK with you,” he finally said.
Brown, in particular, will be under pressure to turn things around after Saturday. Since 2018’s 62-39 loss at Ohio State, there have been whispers about his ability to ready his defense for big games. Now, there will be shouts about his ability to ready his defense, period.
“Yeah, I do, very much so,” Harbaugh said when asked if he had confidence in his defensive coordinator. “I love all of our coaches. Every coach on this staff. They work extremely hard. Their schemes are really good. And they coach them good.”
Finding positives to harp on will be laborious for the coaching staff. The Hoosiers scored 38 points and gained 460 yards from scrimmage.
After Michigan opened the second half with a composed scoring drive to cut the deficit to 10, the defense kept itself on the field by committing pass interference on third down. Then it left Indiana’s Jacolby Hewitt open for a 32-yard catch, setting up running back Stevie Scott to punch in a touchdown from a yard out.
That was the first of two second-half touchdowns for Scott. The next came after Milton’s second interception, when Michigan had a chance to make it a one-score game.
After completing the processionary eight minutes and 40 seconds of football that followed, the Wolverines left Memorial Stadium with their heads hung, leaving behind a town in celebration and looking toward a season in desperate need of a turnaround.