When the Michigan football team needed a big play to mount a comeback against Indiana on Saturday afternoon, the opportunity was there.
Down 31-14 in the late stages of the third quarter, junior quarterback Joe Milton saw Ronnie Bell behind the 13th-ranked Hoosiers’ blown coverage. As the junior wide receiver streaked up the seam, there wasn’t a defender within 10 yards of him. It was, by all accounts, exactly what the Wolverines needed to get back into the game.
Milton uncorked a deep ball that should’ve been an easy Michigan touchdown, but it hit the turf just beyond Bell’s outstretched arms. The overthrow cost the Wolverines (1-2) a touchdown that would’ve put them within striking distance, and instead of celebrating, they punted.
It was No. 23 Michigan’s most harmful self-inflicted wound in a game defined by its penalties and lack of execution. By the end of the afternoon, the mistakes added up to a 38-21 Indiana (3-0) victory — its first win over the Wolverines since 1987.
On the defensive side of the ball, the slip-ups were consistent from the outset. Two of the Hoosiers’ first three drives ended in touchdowns that came on free plays. Michigan jumped offside a total of six times in the first half, taking all the pressure off Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. as he aired the ball out downfield en route to 254 first-half passing yards.
“Maybe it was (the Wolverines’) over-aggression,” Penix said. “They weren’t disciplined in that area. (We were) just taking advantage of what they were giving us. Giving us those playcalls, making sure we were able to read the defense and getting into not the perfect play, but the best play. That’s what we did today, just taking advantage of those offsides and turning them into touchdowns.”
Added Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh: “That’s something that’s got to get fixed. Got to watch the ball. Keep your snap discipline. It hurt us.”
Thanks in part to the free plays, the Wolverines took a 17-point deficit into the halftime locker room. Yellow flags have become an all-too-common sight for Michigan, which has committed 25 penalties through three games, costing a total of 255 yards. Following a season in which they averaged just six penalties per game, the Wolverines were the second-most flagged team in the Big Ten entering Saturday.
While free plays accounted for 14 points of the Wolverines’ 17-point halftime deficit, the self-inflicted wounds cut even deeper in the second half. Michigan gave the Hoosiers 64 yards in second-half penalties, but perhaps none were as crucial as the 15 gifted by junior cornerback Vincent Gray late in the third quarter.
With the Wolverines trailing, 24-14, Penix tried throwing the ball away as he was taken down on a third-and-9. But Gray aided Indiana with an unnecessary pass interference, and the glaring lapse kept the Hoosiers’ drive alive. Six plays later, it ultimately ended in the touchdown that put the nail in Michigan’s coffin.
“I wouldn’t say it’s things going wrong, I’d say it’s things we’re not doing right,” junior linebacker Michael Barrett said. “Just small things that could easily be fixed, things we know to do and things we know not to do. All the flags, all the penalties that were called — jumping offsides, the pass interferences, all the little things — we all know better and we have to do better.”
Now 1-2 for the first time since 2008, the faltering Wolverines have no shortage of questions to answer. Saturday’s showing made one thing clear: Their tendency to hurt themselves is at the top of that list.