BLOOMINGTON — The 10 yards could have made all the difference.
With just over a minute left to play, the Wolverines were clinging to a 20-17 lead when freshman Brad Robbins launched a 45-yard punt. But Michigan was called for a holding penalty, moving the ball up to Indiana’s 30-yard line.
The Hoosiers pieced together three receptions and left two seconds on the clock. Though Michigan tried to ice him, kicker Griffin Oakes nailed a 46-yard field goal to send the game to overtime.
Behind the efforts of junior running back Karan Higdon and the Wolverines’ defense, the No. 17 Michigan football team (2-1 Big Ten, 5-1 overall) escaped the overtime period with a 27-20 victory over Indiana (0-3, 3-3).
But throughout the day, there was good reason to be worried. Michigan may not have turned the ball over, but the Wolverines certainly held themselves back.
They were called for a season-high 16 penalties, totaling 141 yards. The most costly of which came at the end of the second half. It could have cost Michigan the game, too.
That’s where Higdon and the defense came in. The Wolverines received the ball first and took all of one play to find the end zone. Though Higdon looked stuffed, he managed to bounce around to the outside and run 25 yards for the touchdown.
“I’m going to be honest, I went the wrong way on that play,” said fifth-year senior center Patrick Kugler. “I messed up. (But) when you have a back like Karan, he’s going to make you right sometimes.”
Indiana then had a chance to answer back, and it almost did. The Hoosiers made it all the way to the one-yard line, but Michigan’s defense wouldn’t let them go any farther.
On four consecutive plays, the Wolverines racked up two tackles-for-loss and an incompletion before sealing the deal with an interception from junior safety Tyree Kinnel.
“We (were) going to have to dig down deep to do it,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “The goal-line stand was great, an opportunity for us to keep them out of the end zone and win the ballgame.”
Added fifth-year senior John O’Korn: “We trust our defense. They continue to get the job done. … There’s never any doubt about that in any of our minds.”
Though it took until overtime to finally finish off Indiana, Higdon thought he had already staked Michigan to a decisive lead in the fourth quarter.
At the start of the second half, the Hoosiers had forced a three-and-out and then drove 64 yards for a touchdown to cut the Wolverines’ lead to 13-10. But with 10 minutes left to play, Higdon broke through a gaping hole in the middle for a 59-yard touchdown.
At that moment, Michigan thought it could finally breathe a sigh of relief. It couldn’t.
With four minutes left, Indiana returned a punt 53 yards to the Wolverines’ 20-yard line. Quarterback Peyton Ramsey threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to bring the Hoosiers within three again.
After an onside kick went Michigan’s way, it went three-and-out and was forced to punt. The ensuing penalty could have been devastating.
And there were plenty of penalties that could have cost the Wolverines on Saturday. Out of 16 total, 11 — amounting to 98 yards — came in the first half alone.
Michigan could have had a touchdown in the first quarter, after fifth-year senior tackle Maurice Hurst blocked a 51-yard field goal attempt and sophomore cornerback Lavert Hill returned it 35 yards to the Hoosiers’ 27-yard line.
But the Wolverines wasted their gifted field position. Higdon rushed for a 10-yard gain, but it was negated by a holding penalty. Immediately afterward, the offensive line was called for a false start. Suddenly, Michigan was backed up to Indiana’s 42-yard line.
Though Higdon then rushed for 22 yards on consecutive carries, the Wolverines had to settle for a 38-yard field goal on 4th-and-3 from redshirt freshman kicker Quinn Nordin — his second of the game — after Michigan’s offense stalled in the red zone.
But the most costly penalty of the first half went against the Hoosiers. As fifth-year senior quarterback John O’Korn scrambled on 1st-and-10 near the beginning of the second quarter, Indiana linebacker Tegray Scales was flagged for a late hit. The penalty moved the Wolverines to the Hoosiers’ 28-yard line and Higdon took care of the rest — rushing 16 yards up the middle before completing a 12-yard touchdown run to the outside to put Michigan up 13-0.
Still, 16 penalties are usually a recipe for disaster. For much of the game, it looked like the Wolverines were heading right toward it.
“Those are some of the things we have to grow (from) and improve on,” Harbaugh said. “Just keep coaching, just keep talking about it, just keep learning from it.
“… It’s a process. We gotta become a more disciplined football team.”
Though Michigan managed to escape relatively unscathed Saturday, with a contest against No. 3 Penn State just a week away, the Wolverines will need to clean up their mistakes in a hurry.