The lopsided nature of the Michigan football team’s history against Indiana is well-documented. But this week’s matchup will feature a twist: For just the fourth time in the 69-game series, both teams will be nationally ranked when they take the field.
After upsetting Penn State in overtime and taking care of business against Rutgers, the 13th-ranked Hoosiers enter this week ranked No. 13. The top-15 ranking is Indiana’s first since 1987 — the last time it beat Michigan.
The Wolverines, on the other hand, limps into Saturday coming off the heels of arguably their worst loss under Jim Harbaugh to date. Following a promising blowout of then-No. 21 Minnesota on opening night, Michigan’s comeback effort fell short against three-touchdown underdog Michigan State last week. And for the third time in six years, the Wolverines watched helplessly as their opponents left Ann Arbor with the Paul Bunyan trophy in hand. The next day, they tumbled 10 spots to No. 23 in the AP Poll.
Now, Michigan’s ability to bounce back from the stunning loss could dictate the direction of its season. For better or worse, Saturday’s trip to Bloomington will be a telling crossroads. As the Wolverines try to right the ship, here’s what to watch for on Saturday:
Will the secondary answer the call?
After losing Ambry Thomas, Lavert Hill and Josh Metellus, Michigan’s secondary was one of the team’s biggest question marks entering this season. Last week’s showing against the Spartans only amplified the Wolverines’ concerns.
Michigan State wide receiver Ricky White — a true freshman who arrived in East Lansing as a three-star recruit — torched Michigan’s defensive backs for eight receptions, 196 yards and a touchdown. It was, by all accounts, a miserable showing for cornerbacks Vincent Gray and Gemon Green, who were repeatedly beat over the top.
Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown’s man coverage scheme was exploited throughout the afternoon, even as the Spartans’ game plan became clear. Coming off a five-catch, 137-yard outing against the Scarlet Knights, Indiana wide receiver Whop Philyor — a 2019 All-Big Ten selection — could put up a statline similar to White’s if the Wolverines don’t adjust.
One way Michigan could prevent a big day from Philyor is by putting more man coverage responsibilities on sophomore safety Daxton Hill’s plate. Since arriving as the crown jewel of the Wolverines’ 2019 recruiting class, all Hill has done is show a high ceiling. Back in September, Brown didn’t sound opposed to the idea of Hill in man coverage.
“(Hill) is a talented guy,” Brown said Sept. 30. “I’m not sure he’s not the best cover guy in the Big Ten, to be honest with you.”
If that’s true, it might be time to use him as one.
Can the banged-up defense create havoc?
Last week, Michigan didn’t force a single turnover against the Spartans, who committed seven in their season opener. The Wolverines also failed to record a sack — an uncharacteristic stat for a coordinator whose nickname is “Dr. Blitz.”
For Michigan to have a chance in Bloomington, its defense must make game-changing plays. But given the injury report, that might be easier said than done. Linebackers Cam McGrone and Michael Barrett sustained injuries in last week’s game. McGrone did not return to the field after getting hurt, and linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary didn’t offer an update on either of them Wednesday.
Barrett and McGrone were replaced by Anthony Solomon and Adam Shibley, respectively. Play was also stopped so that senior defensive end Kwity Paye could receive medical attention, but he returned shortly after.
Billed as the conference’s best defensive end duo, Paye and junior Aidan Hutchinson must find ways to create havoc — especially if the Wolverines enter Saturday’s game shorthanded. They’ve combined for just three tackles for loss so far this season after posting a combined 22.5 in 2019.
In last November’s matchup, Paye and Hutchinson each recorded a sack against the Hoosiers. Hutchinson also broke up a pass, which he’s shown an ability to do at 6-foot-6. Production like that could help power Michigan to a crucial road win on Saturday.
Can Roman Wilson sustain success?
It’s not often a true freshman leads the team in receiving yards in his second game, but Roman Wilson did exactly that. And a week earlier, the Hawaii native was one of just two Wolverines to finish with at least 34 receiving yards.
For Michigan, Wilson’s solid start is a welcomed surprise. His blazing sub-4.40 40-yard dash time is no secret, but his hands and route-running stand out for a freshman. His chemistry with junior quarterback Joe Milton is also clear, as he ranks second on the team in receiving yards (105) and third in catches (seven) through two games. Wilson still hasn’t found the end zone, but offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ usage of him is a great advertisement of “speed in space.”
After a five-catch, 71-yard performance against Michigan State, Wilson will look to build on his early success against an Indiana secondary that has allowed more than 50 receiving yards to only one wideout so far this season.
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