It’s the game before The Game.
To most, Indiana is but a nameless, faceless blip on this path inevitably destined for a clash next Saturday. This game holds little big-picture meaning so long as the Michigan football team takes care of business and emerges with its health intact.
This is college football, though. Crazier things have happened — crazier things happen nearly every week — which helps bring into focus Michigan’s laser-like, week-to-week external mentality. Next week means far, far less if the Wolverines don’t beat the Hoosiers on Saturday.
Here’s what you should be watching for in a game most expect to be a rout:
1) Health — There are real pre-emptive measures the coaches can (and will) take to ensure maximal health for next Saturday. For one, as was the case last week, junior quarterback Shea Patterson almost assuredly will not be running the ball — or taking any unnecessary hits. Patterson getting hurt against a .500 Indiana team would either be a result of tremendously bad unluck or malpractice.
That being said, football is football. Players have instincts they can’t — and shouldn’t — simply turn off. As in most games, a player might leave the game in the second quarter and questions will fly about why he was still playing. Things happen. For Michigan, emerging from this game as healthy as possible is the top priority ahead of next week’s showdown.
2) Can Indiana move the ball? — Ah, the matter of the game. There will be football played Saturday, and if the players and coaches are to be believed, it has their undivided attention. Indiana isn’t the pushover Rutgers was — nor quite the challenge Michigan State or Penn State presented on paper. After last week’s 34-32 win over Maryland, the Hoosiers are averaging 31 points over their last three games. In that span, Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey has thrown for 711 yards and five touchdowns, while completing 66 percent of his passes.
Partially a product of a weaker defense, the Hoosiers are just 1-2 in that span. Still, this is an offense capable of stringing together chunks — and points — if Michigan has one eye on next week already. The top-ranked defense in the country should have no problems taking care of Indiana.
But again, crazier things happen.
3) An early lull?
It’s cliche, sure. And if you listen to 10 seconds of what this coaching staff is saying — or have watched this team play all year — it seems outlandish. But we’re talking about 18-22 year-old kids one week away from one of the biggest games of their lives.
Indiana has two conference wins. The Wolverines are 23-4 in the Harbaugh era. The line for this game appears to be settling around four touchdowns.
All of this creates a presumption that has undoubtedly seeped into the players. Whether they pay it mind is certainly a different question; but there’s no doubt they’re thinking about what a win over Ohio State would mean, what a Big Ten title would mean. It’s human nature.
It seems likely that will be evident, one way or another, early on. If Michigan starts slow, that could indicate an unexpectedly ardous afternoon. If not, the “Revenge Tour” party bus should cruise onto Columbus.
4) Tarik Black’s emergence?
Barring disaster, Michigan is going to go to Columbus next week at near full strength. Two weeks ago, fifth-year senior Chase Winovich referred to the Wolverines as a, “battleship,” in saying how they plan to go to Ohio State.
Well, that battleship is nearing full ammo.
Sophomore wide receiver Tarik Black returned to the field two weeks ago against Penn State, catching a touchdown that was nullified by a penalty. He hasn’t officially caught a pass yet. If he is able to reach the form expected out of him — the form seen in short windows between injuries during his career — that battleship will look all the more terrifying.
This would be the week to re-integrate Black fully with fellow sophomore receivers Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones, a real chance to continue to smooth that rapport between Black and Patterson in what will likely be a blowout victory.