Monday, November 16, 2015

Michigan 48, Indiana 41 (2OT): Different parts

Not all wins are the same.

Some are easy, some are hard. Some are aesthetically pleasing, some are 2014 Northwestern. Some make you sweat, some are laughers.

Some rip your heart out. Some get it beating, shaking uncontrollably like a pinging tuning fork, so much so that it threatens to burst from your chest.

Saturday's trip to Bloomington was a strange concoction, a combination of all of the above. Disorienting, confusing, terrifying: in other words, a normal game against Indiana in the Kevin Wilson era.

Defensively, the Wolverines, now undermanned -- or, at least, relative to prior depth levels -- on the defensive line, were worn down by Indiana's relentless pace. All offense and no defense, the Hoosiers overwhelm with a barrage of passes and quick runs, aided, of course, by the talented Jordan Howard, who would be a good player in any offensive system.

The Michigan defense didn't come away from this looking good, even though 27 regulation points allowed (seven on the punt return touchdown) is actually not that bad against that offense.

It's often said that playing Air Force in your nonconference schedule is a lose-lose, simply because that offense is difficult to prepare for, and even if you beat them, it's not going to be counted in the quality win ledger. Indiana is like that, only Michigan doesn't have the choice to not play them.

So, the Wolverines will have to deal with this every year going forward (that is, until the next tectonic shift of Big Ten alignment). The Hoosiers aren't going away, which is somewhat of a funny statement to make about a team that is now 4-6 on the season, including a loss to Rutgers and close calls against Southern Illinois and Western Kentucky.

But that's just how Indiana rolls. The Hoosiers are nonsensical, a striking configuration of asset and super-flaw, competing against one another. It makes for entertaining viewing from afar, but is nerve-racking to be a part of, whether as a fan of the Hoosiers or a fan of their opponent.

Fortunately for the Wolverines, Jake Rudock seems to finally be coming into his own. Despite sarcastic, eye-rolling comments after first-down scampers (made by yours truly) about his being like Denard, he looks like a completely different, more confident player.

Yes, I know, Rutgers and Indiana likely have something to do with that. Still, Rudock has had an excellent couple of weeks, and I don't need to recite the records broken in Bloomington on Saturday (by the way, it is still somewhat startling that the Michigan record for touchdowns thrown in a game was "only" four).

So, this was Michigan's Air Force of the Big Ten season. With the chance at a division title hanging in the balance, Rudock delivered on the final play of regulation after a frustrating trio of unsuccessful runs leading up to that five-yard strike to Chesson, who had a breakout game of his own.

Rudock's rise has come at a good time, as the running game continues to struggle. Michigan still doesn't really have a reliable feature back, despite promising stuff early in the year from De'Veon Smith, particularly the BYU game. The offensive line isn't really making those holes, and when they do, the backs aren't hitting them. Or, when there's an opportunity to get the edge, Smith is often unable to get there, sometimes resembling a city bus trying to make a left turn.

This is a situation that probably is not going to magically resolve itself in the next two games, particularly not against defenses like Penn State, Ohio State and whatever bowl team (probably an SEC team, I'd imagine) Michigan has to face.

Here we are, with a struggling running game and a defense that is all of a sudden starting to look mortal, and it's Rudock who is coming through it all looking like he could be Michigan's saving grace.

Maybe things are starting to finally click. Maybe this is to a great extent a product of the competition. Like this Indiana win, it's a combination of things, of different parts at odds and yet complementary.

On the bright side for Michigan, Rudock is seasoned. A trip to Penn State and a tilt against Ohio State won't be too big of a stage. He now has 10 games under his belt as a Wolverine and took a big step forward in Bloomington, making throws requiring him to trust his receivers, throws he wasn't making early in the season (not that unmitigated trust in the receivers is always warranted, particularly given some of the route miscues early in the season).

Rudock finished an incredible 33-of-46 for 440 yards, six touchdowns and only one interception. If I gave you that stat line without telling you to whom it belonged, you'd probably think it was the work of [insert Baylor quarterback here]. But no, it was Michigan's Jake Rudock.

That stat line likely won't happen again. The reality is, however, that given the defense's situation, particularly up front, the Wolverines will again need something close to Rudock's best at Penn State, and certainly against Ohio State.

The margin for error is thin. Perhaps the defense's decline is exaggerated, but with the run game being what it is, and Michigan's special teams experiencing a sudden correction in the wrong direction, the burden will increasingly fall on the fifth-year senior from Weston, Florida.

What happens these next two weeks (and beyond) will go a long way toward determining how Rudock is remembered in Michigan lore. If Michigan plays tough but loses out (irrespective of the bowl game, pending the matchup), he'll be the caretaker quarterback who nursed Michigan through a transition year, performing to the best of his abilities. Not great, not bad, but just the right person for the moment to get Michigan through.

But if Michigan wins out, and gets the help it needs to reach Indianapolis, that's a different discussion. That's a discussion of legacy, waiting to be made.

For now, though, let's put the legacy pen back into the ink well, and wait.

Michigan heads to Happy Valley for a noon start this Saturday, playing in a place they've taken losses in 2008, 2010 and 2013. It won't quite be 1997-level "Judgment Day" hype, but it'll be something. If Michigan wins, they'll have a chance to play for a division title on Nov. 28, pending the result of this Saturday's game in Columbus.

It's mid-November, and Michigan is playing for something other than saving its coach's job. That, in and of itself, is something.

Michigan won the Big Ten in 2004, had a shot in the final game of the 2006 season and competed in 2011 (but two division losses sunk that, despite what ended up being a strong season).

This team is flawed, imperfect, a work-in-progress. Still, at 8-2, Michigan has a chance to win something that matters. Through a combination of luck, masking of said imperfections and isolated bursts of skill, Michigan has a chance to make 2015 a memorable one, not just Harbaugh's first year, or the Year that Jake Rudock Played Quarterback and Did Reasonably Fine.

For the first time in a while, Michigan is in the conversation. Forget the much-discussed top four: the playoffs are already here for the Wolverines.

These November games matter. It's an old, yet new feeling. Michigan is playing for something, even a chance at something.

It's been a while.

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