After redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight went down with a shoulder injury last week, the Michigan football team was already in for a challenge in its matchup with Indiana on Saturday.
A mid-game snow flurry, though, magnified the problem immensely. The Wolverines trailed at halftime, 7-3, before senior running back De’Veon Smith exploded for two touchdowns and helped them escape with a 20-10 victory.
Here’s what we learned from Michigan’s 10th victory of the season. (Or at least what we think we learned. The snow made it nearly impossible to see the field.)
1. It was unfair to expect no drop-off at the quarterback position.
After the news of Speight’s injury went public, his coaches and teammates expressed full confidence in his backup, redshirt junior John O’Korn. They pointed to his work ethic and steady focus, claiming they weren’t expecting much of a drop-off.
In hindsight, that probably wasn’t a fair assumption. O’Korn is a talented quarterback, but he hadn’t started in two years and didn’t have the 10 games of experience Speight had accumulated this season, and that showed on Saturday. O’Korn struggled throwing the ball — though the weather factor can’t be ignored — completing just seven of 16 passes for 59 yards.
He did spark the team with his feet, as a 30-yard run on 3rd-and-8 helped set up the Wolverines’ go-ahead touchdown. It was one of just three successful third-down conversions Michigan had all day.
2. De’Veon Smith deserves the trust his coaches have in him.
Some Wolverine fans seemed a bit perplexed after Smith received the bulk of the carries in last week’s loss to Iowa despite averaging just 2.3 yards a carry. Still, running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley made it clear this week that Smith is his most trusted back, citing his experience and development.
Smith didn’t wait long to validate his coach’s trust again, posting a career day Saturday with 158 yards and two touchdowns. His valiant effort in the third quarter proved to be the difference in the victory, swinging a 10-6 deficit into a 20-10 lead that Michigan clung to for the rest of the game.
3. The Wolverines’ secondary isn’t invincible.
It’s still unwise to throw the ball near senior cornerbacks Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling — the two combined for four more pass breakups on Saturday and remain one of the top defensive back duos in the country. The Wolverines’ secondary allowed a few big plays through the air, though, allowing Indiana to temporarily seize control of the game.
In the second quarter, Hoosier receiver Luke Timian picked up a 31-yard reception after Michigan senior safety Delano Hill fell down in coverage, setting up Indiana’s only touchdown of the game. Later, receiver Nick Westbrook made a great catch on a 37-yard gain despite tight coverage from Stribling, but Indiana had to settle for a field goal after the Wolverines picked up a stop on third down.
Michigan was fortunate that the Hoosiers failed to capitalize on their opportunities, but the Wolverines’ trend of allowing a few big plays per game could be problematic with No. 2 Ohio State looming next week.
4. Special teams can still make a difference.
Other than fifth-year senior kicker Kenny Allen’s rediscovered success, it had been a quiet few weeks for Michigan’s special teams unit. The Wolverines’ kick coverage squad got back to its old habit of blocking punts on Saturday, though, and that helped swing the momentum in Michigan’s favor.
First, it was fifth-year senior tight end Michael Jocz getting a hand on a punt in the second quarter, giving the Wolverines the ball in Indiana territory. They ended up kicking a field goal for the first points of the game. Later, it was freshman safety Khaleke Hudson who blocked another punt in the fourth quarter.
Michigan ultimately squandered the second scoring opportunity, but it benefited from great field position all afternoon. The Wolverines’ average starting position was at their own 39-yard line, while the Hoosiers’ was at their own 21 — thanks in large part to Allen, who had three 50-plus yard punts and four inside the 20-yard line.
5. BOLD PREDICTION: Michigan beats Ohio State.
Michigan may have looked sluggish the last two weeks, but “The Game” has a way of waking teams up quickly. Even in 2013 and 2014, when the struggling Wolverines were essentially playing for nothing, they put a scare into the Buckeyes and threatened their national title hopes.
This year’s edition of the rivalry game has higher stakes than any year since 2006. The winner should be in the driver’s seat for a College Football Playoff berth, while the loser will likely be on the outside looking in. A surprise return from Speight would go a long way toward helping the Wolverines’ chances, but his status remains hush-hush.
Regardless, Michigan’s defense will be ready to go, and its offense could benefit from a contest with more stable weather conditions. It’s never easy to win in Columbus, but the Wolverines have more than a fighting chance.