BLOOMINGTON — Trap game is a term that gets tossed around a lot in college football. In a sport where one or two losses define the season for the upper echelon of teams, it can be detrimental to overlook certain opponents for more tantalizing matchups that loom beyond.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what defines a matchup as a trap game. But for the No. 4 Michigan football team, a bout with a middling Indiana squad — sandwiched between its resounding win at Kinnick stadium and its upcoming top-10 showdown against Penn State — had the chance to fit that billing.
The Wolverines (6-0 overall, 3-0 Big Ten) struggled in the first half, but ultimately used a strong final 30 minutes to escape a sound effort from the Hoosiers (3-3, 1-2) with a win, 31-10.
“We felt like we could move the ball on them the whole game, especially the first half, but it just wasn’t clicking,” sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy said. “We weren’t in a rhythm. And once we got into a rhythm in the second half, it was over.”
On the opening drive, Michigan appeared poised to keep the trap door sealed shut, marching right down for a touchdown punctuated by a 50-yard zigzagging scamper from junior running back Blake Corum.
But as trap games go, it was never going to remain that simple.
Adversity first struck off the field, when Michigan running backs coach Mike Hart suffered a seizure on the sidelines and had to be taken to the hospital. Fortunately, at halftime Hart was reported to be in good spirits; after the game, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh confirmed that Hart is stable.
On the field,the Wolverines looked rattled — and costly penalties and a stagnating offense kept the Hoosiers afloat. Indiana began to take the fight to Michigan, exploiting its soft secondary with outside throws and tying the game up at 10 early in the second quarter.
The remainder of the first half turned ugly, punctuated by an exchange of blocked field goals.
The Wolverines, a team that has preached a blue collar work ethic and operated with machine-like efficiency all year, appeared to have a few screws loose. Fitting the overall discombobulated nature of the half, the usually reliable Corum was stuffed for a turnover on downs on fourth-and-inches in Indiana territory with less than a minute remaining.
Michigan jogged off the field still tied, a situation that seemed improbable after a dominant opening drive. But inside the locker room, there was no panic about the sluggish start.
“There wasn’t (any) ‘deer in the headlights’ or concern,” graduate wide receiver Ronnie Bell said. “It was just like, ‘Alright, this is what’s happened. This is what we gotta do.’ And I feel like the offense did a good job of just attacking it like that.”
Whether the second half would tell a similarly chagrined tale was immediately put to the test: The Hoosiers pinned the Wolverines on their own 2-yard-line to open the second half.
Then, the resolve Michigan had hopelessly searched for in the first half finally shined through. McCarthy dissected the Indiana defense, dotting the ball up the field and culminating an 11-play, 98-yard drive with a touchdown to junior wide receiver Cornelius Johnson.
“That was probably the most exciting drive of the game,” Bell said. “We communicated that this was a chance to make a statement. We knew we could move the ball, we knew we could score. And I think everybody answered the bell just right. We drove right down the field and scored.”
The offense answered the bell a couple more times in the second half, stringing together two more touchdown drives. With the Hoosiers successfully plugging up the run, McCarthy flaunted his abilities through the air — finishing 28-36 for 304 yards and three touchdowns.
But a stellar passing day didn’t remove all concern about the Wolverines’ offense. As the game ebbed into the fourth quarter, they only clung to a meager seven-point lead. Indiana didn’t look threatening, but Michigan’s own ineptitude — including a McCarthy interception, offensive penalties and uninspiring play calling — kept the chances for an upset in play.
It wasn’t until senior tight end Luke Schoonmaker found the end zone with under 10 minutes remaining to extend the lead to 14 that all doubt clouding the game could be removed.
Much of the success was attributed to the defense, which played arguably its most complete half of the season. The unit displayed a suffocating fortitude, pitching a shutout and piling up four sacks.
“In the first half they hit a couple of big plays,” junior edge rusher Jaylen Harrell said. “We just changed a couple things, made some halftime adjustments, listened to our coaches and did what we had to do in the second half.”
The Wolverines looked out of sorts much of the day, making routine plays look difficult and letting a mediocre opponent hang around. But in the second half, Michigan toughened up and pulled out a win.
And regardless of what elements define a trap game, getting a win is ultimately what matters most.