Michigan's defense is using its performance against Indiana to learn and improve in prepartion for Penn State. Kate Hua/Daily. Buy this photo.

The No. 5 Michigan football team is at the halfway point of its season, having progressed through six games with relatively few roadblocks. 

Perhaps most surprisingly, the Wolverines’ defense — labeled as the greatest question mark entering the year — is molding into a respectable unit. 

“We’re pretty good as a defense,” sophomore safety Rod Moore said Monday. “All teams have somewhere that we need to improve on. I feel like we need to improve everywhere, just take care of the little things and be perfectionists. Be great.” 

The unit is improving, but it is not yet at that threshold. Saturday’s game against Indiana is emblematic of both what it does well and what it needs to shore up. 

In the first half, Michigan’s defense revealed a number of flaws. On its second drive, Indiana marched its way 76 yards on a 10-play dive in just 2:46 minutes. Two other long drives ensued, resulting in the Hoosiers compiling 193 first half yards, predominantly through the air: Quarterback Connor Bazelak seemed unfazed by the Wolverines’ defensive backs and tested them with numerous downfield shots. 

The second half told a different story. Michigan limited Indiana to just 29 yards and kept the Hoosiers off the scoreboard entirely. 

After the game, players spoke of the “relentless” nature of the defense, in particular the defensive line and various in-game adjustments. Monday, Moore credited something different — a dose of reality. 

“There weren’t any adjustments, it was more so us snapping into how we play,” Moore said. “We weren’t playing to our standard in the first place. We shouldn’t have been in the game with Indiana in the first half. That’s not our standard.” 

It’s not, but the test will bode well. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh admitted that much Monday, in a slightly different context. 

“If you’re going to reach the promised land, you need those unique games where a team shows what it’s capable of doing in defining moments in the second half of a ballgame,” Harbaugh said. “There’s a lot to keep us humble and things that we have to improve on. But it did also give us a glimpse of what we can be.” 

In that lens, the Indiana game can be used as a blueprint — both for what not to do and what to do. The Hoosiers do not boast a particularly impressive offense, but they offered a glimpse of what the Wolverines may see in other offenses moving forward. 

For one, Indiana utilized an up-tempo system, preventing the Wolverines from mass substitutions — which they often deploy. Last season, Michigan struggled against high-tempo opponents, most memorably Michigan State, when the defense failed to adjust and looked out of sorts, running players late onto the field. 

Moore admitted that the change of pace proved difficult; it was the first significant up-tempo unit that the Wolverines faced this season. He came away pleased with the results. 

“That was kinda hard at the start of the game, but we took care of it,” Moore said. “(We) started jogging and getting lined up instead of walking back there after each play and getting our eyes back to get the call.” 

Saturday marks the second consecutive strong performance by the Michigan defense. It stymied Iowa — which isn’t exactly the biggest accomplishment, considering the Hawkeyes’ perpetually anemic offense. But, in back to back games against Iowa and Indiana, the reinvigorated pass rush flourished. 

Against the Hawkeyes, the unit took over with three sacks on the Hawkeyes’ penultimate possession, shutting the door on a possible comeback. In Bloomington, the defensive line dominated — seven sacks by seven different players comprised the death knell for the Hoosiers’ offensive line coach, who was fired after the game. 

In the nonconference slate, the unit languished, raising concerns that Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo would truly be irreplaceable. That seems not to be the case. 

And while that early red flag has disintegrated, others have persisted: Namely, the linebackers have struggled in pass coverage while the defensive backs have proven vulnerable. Each of those problems materialized in the past two weeks. 

With Penn State — which boasts the fourth-best scoring offense in the Big Ten — arriving for a top-10 clash Saturday, the defense will be tested in a way that it hasn’t been yet this year. That holds true for both the alleged strides and the areas of apparent weakness. 

“It’s gonna be a really good test for our edges, a really good test for our run defense and our pass defense,” Colson said. “We just gotta bring our A game.” 

As a whole, that’s not something that Michigan has shown yet. Colson and Moore are each keenly aware of that reality, with Colson circling back to Indiana as a reference point. 

“That’s what we’re trying to strive for now, a perfect game,” Colson said. “We played a really good half, but now we gotta get off strong.” 

A perfect game may not necessarily come against the Nittany Lions, but it will mark another stiff test as the new-look defense strives to near that level.