BLOOMINGTON — From the first series of the game, the Michigan football team’s defense stood with its hands on its hips. Indiana received the opening kickoff and ran nine plays in the first 2:32. It was going to be a long day.
Over the course of a four-hour, double-overtime shootout Saturday, Indiana continued to sap the defense’s will. The Hoosiers possessed the ball for 11:49 in the first quarter, ran 89 plays in total and rushed 55 times, and suddenly there was a way to beat the No. 1 scoring defense in the country: Push the tempo, refuse to allow substitutions and never let up.
It sounded simple, but Indiana was the perfect team to do it. Not Utah, though the Utes caught the Wolverines in the season opener in Salt Lake City before their dominant roll began. Not Michigan State, though the Spartans featured quarterback Connor Cook, the best signal caller Michigan has faced this season.
But Indiana, which had lost five straight games heading into Saturday’s game at Memorial Stadium, found a way.
The Wolverines were in a bad position from the outset. Redshirt junior nose tackle Ryan Glasgow missed the game with a pectoral injury, one that will likely sideline him for the rest of the season. That put Michigan shorthanded against the highest-tempo offense it will face this season. The Wolverines had to rotate bodies constantly, except the Hoosiers’ no-huddle attack prevented that.
“We were playing like we were undermanned,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “Tired.”
With Glasgow out, the Hoosiers ran the ball right at his spot, gashing the Wolverines’ vaunted defense repeatedly. Eleven plays, 53 yards. Seventeen plays, 71 yards. Nine plays, 69 yards. And the fast tempo only made things worse.
In almost every way, the game played out exactly as it did two weeks ago at Minnesota. The Wolverines’ defense played its worst game of the season, but the offense kept the team in it. Then, Michigan pulled ahead late in the fourth quarter, requiring the defense to make only one more stop.
In this case, it didn’t happen.
Rather, Indiana gained possession and did exactly what it had all night — run the ball down the Wolverines’ throats.
“The more plays they make, the more confidence they get and the faster they go,” said Michigan junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis. “That’s basically how they play, and it actually worked out.”
The Hoosiers called eight straight run plays totaling 69 yards — 19, then four, four, four, four, four, six and finally a 24-yard touchdown run by running back Jordan Howard. Howard finished with 35 carries for 238 yards and two touchdowns.
Until Saturday, the highest rushing total the Wolverines allowed was 144 yards at Minnesota. Indiana gained 307. The previous total yardage high was 461 at Minnesota. Indiana gained 527. The previous scoring high was 27 against Michigan State. Indiana scored 41.
“We gotta go back and see what we did wrong, because it’s a lot to clean up,” Lewis said. “It was a lot of sloppy play out there on our behalf.”
It was a nightmarish game, until the game culminated in one play that could limit the damage, one result that could erase the worries.
After the Hoosiers scored their final touchdown, Michigan’s offense gave the defense another chance to make the stand it made against Minnesota. Fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock threw touchdown passes on two consecutive plays — first a 21-yarder to end the first overtime, then a 25-yarder to start the second — and the Wolverines had an opportunity.
“(Harbaugh) talks about relentlessness,” Lewis said. “So when we go out there and we play, we gotta forget about the next play and go on like we did.”
It started like all the others. Howard took the handoff and reached the edge, picking up 17 yards on first down. Then, Michigan’s defense stiffened, allowing him just three over the next two plays. On third down, quarterback Nate Sudfeld kept the ball and reached the two-yard line.
Then, on the third opportunity, came the defense’s stand. Sudfeld took a shotgun snap and looked to his right toward wide receiver Mitchell Paige, who ran a curl route against Michigan junior safety Delano Hill. Paige got a hand on the ball, but Hill jumped in and broke up the pass.
“That’s the good news, we found a way,” Harbaugh said.
The film study of this game will be ugly. Beyond the performance itself, Glasgow’s absence for the rest of the season will be a big hole. Next week’s trip to Penn State won’t be any easier than Saturday, and the showdown with Ohio State after that will be the hardest of them all.
The Wolverines may find themselves with their hands on their hips again, and they’ll have to do better than giving up eight straight running plays totaling 69 yards.
“We had to suck it up,” Harbaugh said. “There’s nothing in football you hate to see more than a team that goes on a long drive and only runs the football. That was all they did.”
Sitting at a table in the bowels of the stadium with a gutsy, double-overtime win in his pocket, Harbaugh paused, then corrected himself.
“I guess there’s some things worse than that,” he said. “Losing would have been worse than that.”