Michigan Football: Five Things to Watch as Wolverines Battle Indiana
The history of the Michigan-Indiana series is one of quiet domination: since 1968 Michigan is 31-1. Indiana hasn’t won a matchup in the series since a 1987 upset in which Jamie Morris ran for 152 yards. A blocked punt in the first quarter allowed Indiana to win a low-scoring game and take over first place in the Big Ten.
The other historical footnote: although this is the seventh time that the Hoosiers have won their first three games in the past 20 years, Indiana hasn't actually started 4-0 since 1990. The team tends to stagnate once it enters the Big Ten schedule.
None of that matters Saturday, of course, but Michigan should be expected to win comfortably. This is the type of game where you simply hope that nothing disastrous happens—it will only be revelatory if Michigan struggles once again—but there will be a number of things to watch for on Saturday.
The Running Game
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The Michigan running attack by now makes for banal analysis, but only because it appears so potent. No one has been able to stop it.
Michigan should also have little problem running against Indiana, which is 92nd in rush defense and surrendering 177 yards per game, even though they've gotten fat on a surfeit of Towson, Western Kentucky, and Akron.
Things are actually worse for Indiana. Towson, which is only rushing for 136 yards in FCS—including 87 yards against Columbia, a school known more for its intellectuals than its athletes, and 17 yards against Villonova—actually gained 227 yards against Indiana on a solid 5.4 average. This is not a particularly good run defense.
By the rankings Indiana is not the worst defense Michigan has played. The Hoosiers are actually six places ahead of Notre Dame in rush defense, but this comes with an enormous caveat: the Fighting Irish have played three top 20 rushing teams, and the fourth, Purdue, "only" ranks 36th. Indiana should be even worse, lacking the speed to keep up with the Michigan offense.
Meanwhile, Michigan is second in all of FBS at 331 yards per game. Measured by yards per carry, Michigan is still third in the nation. By just about every conceivable metric, Michigan's running game has flourished.
This portends disaster for Indiana. If Michigan plays up to its ability, then the team should be able to break 300 yards on the ground.
Robinson’s Fickle Knee and Other Injuries
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Michael Shaw has looked much more decisive these past few weeks, accumulating 185 yards and four touchdowns on only 24 attempts, but he is seriously questionable for Saturday's game. So is Fitzgerald Toussaint, who only carried for two attempts against Bowling Green.
Toussaint is probably being held out for his own protection, but Shaw’s ankle must be pretty serious to be effectively ruled out for the game. Without him, Michigan will probably deploy a steady rotation of Vincent Smith, Stephen Hopkins, and Michael Cox in the backfield. Both Hopkins and Cox looked good last Saturday, but Cox still makes some questionable decisions.
Fortunately, Denard Robinson has been practicing all week and should play most of the game barring serious pain, or at the very least a blowout that necessities an appearance by Forcier or Gardner. If Robinson is playing up to his ability, then that should alleviate some of the strain placed upon the running backs by Shaw’s absence.
On the defensive side, the future of safety Mike Williams is in doubt due to concussion issues, but Michigan should add depth with the probable play of both Brandon Herron and Carvin Johnson.
The Continued Emergence of Taylor Lewan
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Taylor Lewan was initially recruited as a four star player by Rivals and Scout and an 80 by ESPN. Scouts were impressed by his potential upside but said that he needed to add bulk. Fortunately, Barwis is a miracle worker, and Lewan is now over 290 lbs.
After he received some playing time against UMass, Lewan started at left tackle in place of Huyge last Saturday. He delivered five pancakes against the defense on 20 snaps and stood out on run plays, consistently making blocks in the second level. The ability to overpower defenders is adding greatly to his repertoire.
Lewan is expected to start again on Saturday, which should secure Michigan's depth on the line. Combined with Molk, Schilling, and the improving Omameh, who looks good out in space, Michigan should be able to control the line of scrimmage against Indiana.
General Defensive Foibles
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Indiana features a potent passing game that combines the arm of Ben Chappell, whose 296 yards per game is 10th in FBS, with the receiving ability of Damarlo Belcher, who has 94 yards per game. These numbers are somewhat distorted by the soft schedule, but Indiana should have the talent to be a threat through the air.
What Michigan must contain, however, is the ground game. Last year Michigan allowed an average Indiana rushing attack which had averaged a mere 117 per game to run for 197 yards and three touchdowns. Incidentally, this difference is almost the exact amount surrendered by the 85 yard run touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
Indiana’s ground attack hasn’t improved since then, but Michigan is still grappling with the occasional failure to do something simple like keep contain. Michigan has done a good job of stopping many runs at the line but has been often out-maneuvered by runners in space. The defense must stop Indiana from accruing easy first down runs by making them work. This is hardly a kind of panacea—long, grinding drives feel like slow death and keep the offense off the field—but it should allow Michigan to focus on the passing game.
If the defense gives up more than the 35 that Akron allowed against Indiana, then there will be much gnashing of teeth, but 21 to 24 points would probably be a clear victory.
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On offense against Bowling Green, Michigan deployed two tight ends as H-backs, using Martell Webb and Kevin Koger as blockers, near the end of the first half and beginning of the second. Michigan mostly ran some stretches and counters out of it.
The defense in the first three games mostly used a 3-3-5 or 4-3, but against Bowling Green Michigan also used a dime package with six DBs. During these plays there were a few personnel changes: Courtney Avery and Terrance Talbott played in the secondary, and on a play or two Mouton became a down lineman for the first time since, I believe, the UConn game. At first the dime package was deployed on long third downs, but Michigan also blitzed out of it on a few short third downs.
We are likely to see even more of them against Indiana. Fortunately, new packages on offense are a good way to creatively help the talent flourish, but on defense they are probably designed to hide the massive faults, which is never a good thing. However, Michigan should have some depth this week, allowing the defense to be a little more flexible in its schemes.