Coming off its first loss, the Michigan football team used this week to regroup.
On Monday morning, Jim Harbaugh declared that the Wolverines would bounce back with more resolve. A players-only meeting followed suit on Monday afternoon, and safeties coach Ron Bellamy confirmed it set the stage for a strong week of practice.
“I’ve seen the team for a long time now, the way they respond,” Harbaugh said. “Whether it’s a setback or chatter, I know how they’re going to respond. Been around several of them. … Very confident that the team will respond like they do, which is (to) come back with more resolve. (They’re) more determined to prepare and get ready for our next ball game.”
Still, last week’s defeat in East Lansing means Michigan faces an uphill climb to reach the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis, let alone the College Football Playoff. On Tuesday, sophomore offensive lineman Zak Zinter proclaimed the Wolverines will win out. After checking in at No. 7 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, it appears they may need to do exactly that in order to earn a spot in the four-team field.
Here’s what to watch for when Michigan begins that journey against an injury-riddled Indiana team under the lights on Saturday:
Michigan’s dominant pass rush could feast
Part of the Hoosiers’ 2-6 record this season stems from inconsistent quarterback play. Between Michael Penix Jr., Jack Tuttle and Donaven McCulley, three different Indiana quarterbacks have attempted at least 30 passes so far. Penix and Tuttle are both currently dealing with injuries, leaving McCulley — a true freshman with one start under his belt — in line to start against the Wolverines this weekend.
On one end of the line of scrimmage, he’ll have senior edge Aidan Hutchinson charging at him. From the other side, it’ll be junior edge David Ojabo. The pass-rushing duo has racked up seven sacks apiece, leaving them tied atop the Big Ten sack leaders. According to Pro Football Focus, Hutchinson’s 93.5 grade leads the nation and Ojabo’s 89.1 ranks fifth.
“It’s a tremendous thing,” Harbaugh said. “Aidan continues to be a great player and keeps raising his level of play every week and David Ojabo is doing the same. So, he’s really come on. It’s pretty obvious. The other one on each side, it presents an issue for an offense.”
Will inconsistent quarterback play plague Indiana?
Asked about Indiana’s three quarterbacks on Wednesday, Bellamy laughed and told reporters Michigan is preparing for each of them. Earlier this week, though, Hoosiers’ coach Tom Allen was a bit clearer in his plan.
“Donaven is the healthiest right now,” Allen said, according to 247Sports. “He is the guy that we’re getting ready to play. And to me obviously showed a lot of positive signs of things that I expected him to be able to do. … To me, right now, Donaven’s the guy and (we’ve) got to keep getting him ready to play better every week.”
McCulley has completed just 15 of his 31 pass attempts so far this season — the lowest accuracy mark of Indiana’s three quarterbacks. His first pass came in a blowout loss against Ohio State, but he completed just one of his six attempts. During the Hoosiers’ trip to College Park last week, McCulley went 14-for-25 passing with 242 yards and two touchdowns.
A former four-star recruit, McCulley brings good size to the quarterback position at 6-foot-5. But with an inaccurate arm, the Wolverines’ defense could force turnovers and confuse him with a mix of man and zone coverage looks.
Can Michigan’s backfield bounce back?
Through the first seven games of the season, the Wolverines’ backfield established itself as one of the best in the country. Both sophomore Blake Corum and senior Hassan Haskins entered last week ranked top 50 nationally in rushing yards, but they repeatedly ran into brick walls in East Lansing.
Despite the fact that Michigan scored 33 points, neither running back rushed for more than 60 yards or found the end zone. Together, Corum and Haskins tallied a season-low 104 rushing yards on 27 carries — an average of less than four yards per attempt. Both backs struggled in short-yardage situations and didn’t make much of their checkdown opportunities in the passing game, though part of that can be chalked up to subpar blocking.
“It needs to be better, needs to be cleaner,” Harbaugh said. “Yeah, cleaner is the best way to say it. You don’t want the backs to be hit on the line of scrimmage. Play blocked for at least two or three yards and actually be able to get four or five. Yeah, something to work on.”
Against an Indiana defense that’s allowed 125 yards per game on the ground this season, Haskins and Corum will have a good opportunity to get back on track.
Prediction: Michigan 38, Indiana 13