The home stretch of the season has arrived, and the Michigan football team’s goals are suddenly within reach. The Nov. 28 rivalry game against Ohio State looms larger than ever, but first the Wolverines (4-1 Big Ten, 7-2 overall) must take care of business on the road.
They play at Indiana (0-5, 4-5) on Saturday and at Penn State next weekend. The first test in Bloomington could be tricky, considering the Hoosiers have the offense to pile up points against anybody, even on a five-game losing streak.
Indiana has been on the brink of an upset multiple times this season, but historically, upsets have not come against Michigan for the Hoosiers. The Wolverines own the all-time series, 54-9, and have won 17 straight dating back to 1988. Even during their lean years in 2009 and 2010, they escaped with 36-33 and 42-35 wins, respectively.
But once again, a victory on the road is no sure bet. With a few unknowns remaining, there will be plenty to watch for Saturday. Here are a few highlights.
1. Tempo, tempo, tempo.
Indiana may not be the toughest test Michigan’s defense will face this season, but it will be unique. The Hoosiers’ no-huddle attack runs 2.73 plays per minute, ranking 17th in the nation. The Wolverines have not seen an up-tempo offense since their first two games against Utah and Oregon State.
To make matters more complicated, redshirt junior defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow left last Saturday’s game with a shoulder injury and had his arm in a sling this week. If he can’t play Saturday, redshirt sophomore Maurice Hurst is the only nose tackle left on the depth chart. The Wolverines rotate often on the defensive line, so that could mean a bigger workload for redshirt juniors Matt Godin, Chris Wormley or Willie Henry.
On offense, Indiana has enough weapons to spread the field and test Michigan’s defense. Nate Sudfeld, a third-year starter at quarterback, is healthy and has averaged 278.6 yards in eight games. Running back Jordan Howard, who missed two games earlier in the season, has rushed for 961 yards at 6.1 yards per carry.
No team will run the Wolverines’ stout defense off the field, but the Hoosiers could at least make things interesting.
2. How does Michigan look on the road?
The Wolverines’ results away from home have run the gamut. They opened the season with a sluggish, three-turnover loss at Utah. They dominated an outmatched Maryland team four weeks later, 28-0. And they escaped with a hard-fought 29-26 win over Minnesota two weeks ago in the most tightly contested of the three.
The matchup with Ohio State on Nov. 28 only matters if Michigan can remain unscathed until then. Though Bloomington doesn’t fit on the same level as the top schools in the Big Ten when it comes to hostile road environments, the Wolverines must be wary. And they must make another trip to Penn State next week.
The Hoosiers have lost five in a row, but they have been within one possession of a top-10 team in two of them.
3. Where on the field is Jabrill Peppers?
The hype surrounding Michigan’s redshirt freshman safety has only increased as the season has gone on and Peppers has played more roles. In the past three games, he has made an impact in all three phases, and he now ranks third on the team with 470 all-purpose yards despite spending most of his time on defense.
Last week, the coaches rolled back Peppers’ workload for the first time this season, putting junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis on the kick return team in his place. He also sustained a thigh contusion last Friday on a collision in practice. Lately, Peppers’ snap count has risen, and against Indiana’s up-tempo offense, that might be tough to sustain. How much rest the Wolverines give him remains to be seen.
4. Can Jake Rudock keep making strides?
The fifth-year senior quarterback’s teammates and coaches have been vocal all season about Rudock’s improvement, but the praise was louder than ever after Rudock’s career-high 337 passing yards against Rutgers last week.
Michigan’s defense has played the biggest role in the team’s success this season, but Rudock will be counted on most during the final three games. If Saturday turns into a shootout, he may have to air the ball out. Indiana’s pass defense ranks 126th in the country and has allowed an average of 339 yards over the past three games. If Rudock carries over last week’s success into this week’s game, the Wolverines will be tough to beat.