All week, Michigan’s players and coaches have been asked whether Saturday’s trip to 7-3 Indiana constitutes a trap game. And all week, the response has been resounding: The Hoosiers are too good for that.
The logic backs it up — Indiana nearly won at Penn State last weekend and ranks 14th nationally in passing yards per game. On paper, it’s the Wolverines’ fourth or fifth-toughest game of the season to date, depending on your opinion of Iowa.
And yet, there’s an irresistible inclination to look at what lies ahead, toward the looming elephant in the room that visits Ann Arbor eight days from now.
It’s an understandable inclination in any season, when Michigan’s matchup with Ohio State is circled on calendars years in advance. That’s especially true this year, when that matchup is the Wolverines’ one remaining chance to define their season as a success.
So, no matter what Michigan says, this week will always be viewed through a unique lens: How does it affect the Ohio State game?
With that in mind, The Daily breaks down what to watch for as the Wolverines attempt to answer the questions they face before the Buckeyes come to town.
Shea building on momentum
A month ago, the resounding dialogue surrounding Shea Patterson’s season was to write it off as a failure. In nearly every statistical category, he had regressed from a stellar 2018 as he appeared uncomfortable in Josh Gattis’ pro-spread, read-based offense.
Late in the first half against Penn State five weeks ago, Patterson hit his nadir, sulking off the field after a hideous screen-pass interception as the Nittany Lions surrounded him in celebration.
Since then, he’s done a 180, offering a masterclass in how to run Gattis’ offense. Over the Wolverines last three games, he’s completed 43 of 67 passes for 635 yards, seven touchdowns and zero interceptions, peaking with a career-high 384 yards against Michigan State last weekend.
Even against the reeling Spartans, that game offered a glimpse of Patterson’s dynamic potential — the type of performance Michigan will need in order to overcome 15 years’ worth of demons against Ohio State a week from now.
In the present, it’s also the type of performance that will ensure the Wolverines don’t have any trouble with Indiana. The Hoosiers are passing for over 300 yards per game this year — a mark Patterson hadn’t hit in his Michigan career before Saturday.
A repeat of the mediocre performances that marred the beginning of Patterson’s season could leave Michigan struggling to catch up, introducing much more prescient questions than what comes a week from now.
How Michigan defends a high-octane, pass-first offense
Speaking of Indiana’s passing attack, this weekend will pit the Wolverines’ defense against an offensive style that they haven’t faced all season.
That in itself will provide a unique challenge for Don Brown’s defense, but it also carries larger implications. The Hoosiers’ pro-spread, one-back offense offers a watered-down version of Ohio State’s offense that torched Michigan for 62 points a year ago.
That game brought the type of large-scale questions that have rarely faced Brown in his time at Michigan. They centered on the Buckeyes’ use of crossing patterns, getting their talented receiving corps in space against Brown’s man defense.
This year, Brown has responded with more zone defense than he’s ever used, countering the mesh concepts that teams like Iowa and Michigan State have used in their attempts to replicate Ohio State’s success. Saturday, though, will be the most stern test of the Wolverines’ zone defense, against one of the few pass-first offenses the Big Ten has to offer.
How Michigan responds will dictate expectations against the Buckeyes a week from now.
Can Ronnie Bell get in the end zone?
Okay, so maybe this one doesn’t affect Michigan’s chances against Ohio State.
It’s still fun to think about — something to watch for if the Wolverines break out to an early lead on Saturday and erase any doubt over the game’s outcome. Bell has been among Michigan’s brightest offensive stars this season, with his 67.8 yards per game the most from a Wolverines’ receiver since Jeremy Gallon’s 105.6 in 2013.
It has been a revelation from Bell, who caught just eight passes a year ago, but has flourished in Gattis’ offense.
And yet, he still hasn’t found the end zone. It’s become a running joke among the Wolverines, with players chiding Bell each time he returns to the sidelines after coming up a few familiar yards short.
Breaking his streak against the Buckeyes would surely be more satisfying, but with just two games to play, Bell will take any touchdown he can get.
When Vegas’ opening line set Michigan as 7-point favorites, the natural reaction was surprise. This is a matchup the Wolverines are annually favored in by 20 points and one they haven’t lost since 1987.
And yet, it was also fair, with the Hoosiers having pushed Penn State to the brink in State College last week. Since then, the line has opened up to 10, a reflection of Michigan’s brand name and current form.
Despite Indiana’s offensive prowess, that form should be too much for the Hoosiers to overcome, even if it’s far less comfortable than the Wolverines would like.