On Michigan’s last third down of the game — and its last true chance to stage any kind of comeback — Joe Milton launched the ball down the field and into the hands of an Indiana defensive back.
It was a microcosm of the 38-21 loss for the Wolverines, in which nearly every third down ended in disaster on both sides of the ball.
On offense, Michigan was just 3-for-11 on third downs. After last week’s loss to Michigan State, in which the Wolverines were 5-for-14, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh attributed the lack of success on third downs to an inefficient offense more generally. The team too often got into third-and-long situations, narrowing the range of plays the offense could make.
This week, it was more of the same. Michigan faced seven third-and-longs (classified as third down with seven or more yards to go). The Wolverines did not face a single third down with fewer than five yards to go.
“Third down, I know it’s the money down, but first and second downs are game there and making plays on first and second down too,” Harbaugh said. “The running game was not real productive. so that’s what I think led to our not having success and Indiana having success.”
Indiana coach Tom Allen had one main objective coming into the game: stopping the run. It worked for Michigan State last week and this week, it worked for the Hoosiers. The Wolverines had just 13 rushing yards the whole game and as many players with negative net rushing yards (three) as positive. Despite this, Michigan ran the ball on first down eight times and only once gained more than three yards. The fact that the Wolverines’ two starting tackles did not travel due to injury didn’t help, either.
The lack of success in the ground game led the Wolverines to run a one-dimensional passing attack. While Michigan did gain 344 yards through the air, the fact that Indiana completely plugged the run made it difficult for the Wolverines to finish drives.
“We knew going into this game, we said we have got to stop the run,” Allen said. “And we felt like that’s what we were gonna establish … but we eliminated the run in this game and from that point we started just pushing strong and defending the pass.”
Meanwhile, Indiana was 9-for-18 on third down and gained first downs on third-and-long four times. The culprit here was also familiar: two of those completions were due to penalties — holding on Gemon Green in the second quarter on a third-and-12 and pass interference on Vincent Gray in a third-quarter third-and-7. Though the Wolverines made a few good plays on defense, they were quickly erased with penalties or poor coverage against quarterback Michael Penix.
“There’s definitely penalties,” Harbaugh said. “The offsides contributed to the third downs and touchdowns and we had some third-down situations on defense and helped extend their drives and some of those holding penalties and pass interference penalties definitely contributed.”
Michigan’s offense can’t force opposing defenders to commit pass interference. But if it hopes to improve on third down, it will have to get its offense back in sync — which will help both avoid third-and-long situations in the first place and have a better plan of attack when it does find itself there.
As for the defense, it needs to be able to get off the field. The issues with the secondary go beyond the penalties, but if the Wolverines’ corners can play more disciplined, that will only help. And if Michigan can improve on third downs, that could be its best chance at pulling out of its 1-2 hole.
“Really just being on the same page, just playing the ball better,” sophomore safety Daxton Hill said. “As you can see, third downs, we could’ve, we had many opportunities to get off the field, so penalties, just lackadaisical things. We do need to fix those and play the ball a lot better.”