BLOOMINGTON — Peyton Ramsey watched the play and jumped. His arms flew upwards. He landed past the goal line. He pumped his fist once, then pumped it again. He shouted.
It was only five minutes into Saturday’s game, and if Indiana had come in wanting to make a statement, there it was. An 80-yard drive into the end zone where the Hoosiers’ offense hummed, where Michigan’s defense was set on its heels. A shot across the bow. And Indiana kept attacking.
Three drives into the game, the Hoosiers had 153 yards of offense, two touchdowns and a chance to expose the Wolverines a week ahead of their biggest game. A chance to make beating Ohio State seem like a pipe dream. That early success ended up being nearly all Indiana got.
It wasn’t a matter of adjustment, sophomore defensive end Aidan Hutchinson would say hours later, seated in front of a microphone still in uniform. It was about just settling in and letting the defense do its thing.
“We knew after those first two touchdowns, they started slowing down a little bit,” Hutchinson said. “We knew the game was ours.”
After the promise of the game’s opening 20 minutes, Indiana ran into the same wall that befell Michigan State, Maryland and Notre Dame. In the end, Michigan won, 39-14, holding an offense that came into Saturday ranked top-15 in SP+ to less than five yards per play and next to no production after three opening drives that seemed to poke holes in a maize and blue facade.
Instead of Ramsey flying upwards, his fist swinging in celebration, the lasting image of this game for Michigan’s defense will be sophomore linebacker Cam McGrone facing the Michigan sideline, swaggering towards the bench and pointing his left arm to the side, indicating change of possession a second before it was called. That came toward the end of the third quarter, after Josh Uche, Carlo Kemp and Hutchinson converged on Ramsey, notched the third sack on the day and forced the ball loose. One play later, junior wideout Nico Collins was in the end zone with Michigan’s last touchdown of the day, a blowout having been codified.
“I finally was able to get one, got the ball out and then my man Nico capitalized on that,” Uche said. “… It was just a great momentum-killer for them.”
By that point, though, the Hoosiers’ momentum was all but dead. And a week before the Ohio State game, Michigan’s defense changing course mid-game and coming out with an emphatic win brings to mind what it couldn’t do against the Buckeyes last year.
When Ohio State hit the Wolverines with crossing routes early on in Columbus last year, Michigan tried to adjust with zone coverage. But when the Buckeyes moved their pieces on the chessboard in accordance, Don Brown’s defense had no answer — ending in a 62-39 defeat.
This year’s game won’t be last year’s. But with everyone’s eyes looking forward to Nov. 30, the Wolverines’ defense figuring something out on the sideline and dominating the rest of the game will at least placate some nerves.
“We just did what we were supposed to do, just stayed on the little things, on the details,” Uche said. “We just executed. Each player was executing their assignment. We just hunkered down on that. Coach Brown called an excellent game, and we just did what we were supposed to do.”
The schematic similarities between the Hoosiers and Buckeyes, both of whom run up-tempo, spread offenses, were brought up postgame. Left unsaid was the obvious: that stopping Indiana and stopping Ohio State are two entirely different things, both in theory and in practice.
“We don’t see them as unbeatable,” Hutchinson said of Ohio State. “Every team can be beat and we’re just gonna go out there and do our job.”
By his own estimate, Jim Harbaugh will take about six hours to revel in Saturday’s win before he moves his thoughts forward. “I stop thinking about this game,” he said, “and pretty much go right to this one.”
The next week will grapple with a situation as frustrating as it is true. Michigan’s defense is playing about as good as it could be right now, and that still may not be enough next Saturday.
Still, at around 1 a.m. Sunday morning, when the enjoyment wears off and Harbaugh starts thinking about the weight that has dragged down his first five years in Ann Arbor, he’ll know his defense is as ready as it can be.