Jim Harbaugh paced toward the field late Saturday afternoon in Bloomington, stopping only to attempt to rip off his headset, before it was snagged by the blue cloth mask he wore over it.
With the clock ticking toward zeros and Michigan trailing Indiana by the eventual final score of 38-21, this was all Harbaugh could do. There was nothing left he could say, no adjustments he could make.
All week he had done that, instilling a new game plan after last week’s calamitous, 27-24, loss to Michigan State. It featured new schemes to improve run fits and an increased reliance on zone coverage. And at times, Michigan’s defense appeared more cohesive than it was a week ago, staying tighter in coverage and holding Indiana to 3.1 yards per carry.
But in the end, the result was the same. The Wolverines, for the first time in 33 years, lost to Indiana. For the first time in 26 months, they are below .500. And if nothing changes, they’ll finish the season there six weeks from now, too — an unthinkable low of the Harbaugh era.
“The thing you have to do is push forward,” Harbaugh said. “Keep going. Lot of people have called it staying the course. And doing it toughly, mentally and physically.”
That mental side is where Michigan tried to start this week in hopes of fixing a defense that failed to stop anything against the Spartans. Defensive coordinator Don Brown eschewed his trademark man-to-man defense for much of the game, opting instead to use a mix of zone coverages.
“They didn’t just play man all the time like they’ve done a lot in the past,” Indiana coach Tom Allen said.
Immediately, Indiana adjusted. By the end of the first quarter, quarterback Michael Penix had 136 passing yards and two touchdowns.
At times, Michigan’s cornerbacks frustrated Penix, staying tighter in coverage than they did a week ago. But regardless of scheme, the Hoosiers consistently found an answer.
There was junior cornerback Vincent Gray, rising to bat away a third-down pass attempt in man coverage in the first quarter, but there was also Gemon Green being called for a key third-down holding penalty in the same scheme. There was zone coverage leaving Penix frustrated with nowhere to throw on the first drive of the second half, but there was also miscommunication between Gray and senior safety Brad Hawkins a drive later, giving Penix an easy hole to exploit for a first down.
And in the end, Michigan was left with the same talking points as a week ago.
Sophomore safety Daxton Hill said the Wolverines need to play the ball better and avoid penalties. If that sounds familiar, here’s junior linebacker Cam McGrone last week: “When you look at the statistics, definitely there was quite a difference in the penalties. Played a big factor.”
Minutes later, Harbaugh spoke of the need to replicate practice performances on Saturdays. Rinse, repeat. Here he is on Monday: “Coaches putting in a really good game plan. Players understanding it. And then they can go out in the moment and go for it when they have as good of an understanding as they can of the game plan.”
Whether or not their understanding of the game plan was good, their performance wasn’t. Much like Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi a week ago, Penix put up a career day. Never before has he passed for 342 yards, as he did Saturday. Only twice has he thrown for three touchdowns without an interception.
Against the Wolverines, he did so with ease. The Hoosiers, as a result, never went more than two drives without a touchdown.
Now, as sophomore receiver Cornelius Johnson put it, the next step for Michigan is “flying back to Ann Arbor and watching film and going to practice and preparing for our next opponent next Saturday.”
“We just need to keep getting better every week,” Hill added.
This week, they didn’t.