Oh, you thought this would be easy, didn’t you?
With just a week before a clash in Columbus, conventional wisdom assumed the No. 4 Michigan football team would cruise past Indiana (2-6 Big Ten, 5-6 overall) on Saturday.
There was nothing easy about it, though. Between costly offensive miscues and defensive lapses, injuries and turnovers, and plenty in between, the Wolverines’ performance will leave much to be desired.
But as the saying goes: a win is a win
Against a Big Ten foe in late November, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh will take it.
“When you’re in playoff mode — that’s our mindset right —playoff wins are big,” Harbaugh said.
After a 31-20 comeback victory over the Hoosiers, the Wolverines (8-0, 10-1) will square off against Ohio State next Saturday with the Big Ten East on the line and College Football Playoff hopes still squarely in the balance.
“Proud of our guys the way they played today,” Harbaugh said. “Onto the next game, onto the big game, onto the championship game. Onward.”
It was evident from the outset Saturday would yield no rout. Running back Stevie Scott scored from 13 yards out to give Indiana a 7-3 lead with 4:14 left in the first quarter.
Newly-minted starting kicker, freshman Jake Moody, cut that lead to 7-6 on the next drive — but only after junior quarterback Shea Patterson and redshirt junior tight end Zach Gentry failed to connect on a seemingly easy touchdown.
Michigan added another field goal on the next drive to take a 9-7 lead, but, again, wasted a precious red zone opportunity. In the half, the Wolverines came away with just nine points in four first half red zone trips.
“I couldn’t put my finger on it,” said junior running back Karan Higdon said of the struggles. “I think it was us just not executing and being efficient the way you needed to be.”
With miscues piling up, responsibility fell on Moody, who answered the call dutifully. He finished 6-for-6 on field goals, a school record for made field goals in a game.
Even when Michigan’s offense seemed to break, though — like on a 41-yard touchdown catch by junior tight end Nick Eubanks in the second quarter — Indiana had an answer, marching down the field in three mintues to take back the lead.
The most boneheaded mistake of the game came at the end of the first half. With the clock winding down, Patterson found junior tight end Sean McKeon near the end zone. McKeon was tackled short of the goal line, allowing the half to expire without adding points and the attempt to spike the ball in time failed. Video later surfaced of an Indiana defensive lineman kicking the ball in an attempt to delay the snap.
“They made a great play on it, a great tackle in the field of play,” Harbaugh said. “… There seemed to be some problems getting the ball back in. Whether that was us not getting the ball to the official quick enough or seeing that they kicked the ball, I don’t know.”
The Wolverines came out of the half clearly re-energized and re-focused, particularly defensively. They forced a three-and-out on their first defensive drive and drove 67 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown immediately after to lead 22-17. Despite an uneven performance throughout, Michigan held onto that lead the rest of the night.
“That kind of just tested our resiliency. It kind of felt like the Northwestern game a little bit, just a gritty game, they’re a good team,” said junior quarterback Shea Patterson. “I think there’s a lot of positives to take out of this. When you’re tested, you either give in to whatever or come out resilient.”
Despite the result, Saturday’s game will be clouded with unease. Fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich left in the third quarter with an undisclosed injury. Fifth-year senior running back Berkley Edwards left the game in the fourth quarter after getting hit on a special teams play.
After the game, Harbaugh said Winovich’s x-rays were negative. Despite the grim nature of the injury, Harbaugh was also optimistic Edwards would be OK.
For Michigan it was one of those games — ugly injuries, inefficient red zone play, mental and physical errors aplenty.
But, in the end, a win. And a win that secures a date with Ohio State next Saturday with everything on the line.
“We’re proving stuff to ourselves,” Higdon said. “That we can definitely be the best team in the country. That we’re definitely a top-four team. And that we’re a playoff contender and we deserve to be in the playoffs. That only happens if we continue to dominate each and every week.”