Monday, November 21, 2016

Michigan 20, Indiana 10: The storm before the storm and tackling the ghost

So much for the proverbial calm before the storm.

Michigan headed into its penultimate regular-season game simply looking to survive, without Wilton Speight, against a capable Indiana team before heading to Columbus for a shot at a division title. With reports of bad weather on the horizon and backup quarterback John O'Korn getting the starting nod, it wasn't hard to guess how the game would have to be won: defense and the running game.

Michigan used those very things, holding the Hoosiers to 10 points and a season-low 255 yards, a significant improvement from last year's effort in Bloomington. On top of that, the often brilliant yet often criticized senior De'Veon Smith had a career day, notching 158 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries.

But late in the third quarter, the outcome floated in the air, blowing left and right like the wind and the snowflakes that would slowly envelop Michigan Stadium in a blustery maelstrom.

Down 10-6 late in the third quarter, the stagnating Michigan offense faced a third-and-8 from its own 36. To that point, the Wolverines had converted just one of nine third-down attempts.

O'Korn dropped back, giving the token play-action fake. Two unblocked Hoosiers screaming toward him, the transfer from Houston deftly split them and headed to daylight down the left side. Thirty yards later, O'Korn was brought down. He bounced back up, pumping his fist and breathing smoke into the cold Ann Arbor air.

Years from now, when Indiana fans remember this game, that's the play that will come to mind. And rightfully so, because the game quickly shifted in Michigan's favor from there. On the next play, Smith rumbled 34 yards for a score, which proved to be the winning tally.

Later in the third, after pinning Indiana deep in its own territory, the Wolverines got the ball back starting at the IU 39. Again, Smith made quick work of things. After an O'Korn incomplete pass, Smith went 39 yards for his second score of the day, giving Michigan a 20-10 lead that was essentially insurmountable given the weather conditions.

With the win, Michigan recorded its first consecutive 10-win seasons since 2002-2003. Let that sink in for a minute.

Needless to say, this wasn't the prettiest performance. O'Korn looked harried and uncomfortable, and rightfully so, as Michigan's pass protection was far from good. Even so, the pocket awareness that Speight seemed to have perfected in his season to date just wasn't there.

But, given the blanketing snows, expecting huge numbers would have been foolish. After all, it's not as if Ohio State did much better in poor conditions against Michigan State (and those were nothing compared to the conditions in Ann Arbor).

Michigan did what it had to do to win, a week after it didn't quite find the juice to flip an eventual one-point loss into a close win. On top of that, this isn't the Kevin Wilson Indiana teams of old -- these guys actually play defense. Not just "good for Indiana" defense, but good, period.

Sure, 7-for-16 for 59 yards and no touchdowns is not good, however you spin it. In the end, though, a win is a win.

The question is: can Michigan get by with a similar performance in Columbus this Saturday? Instinct responds with a resounding "no," although it's not as if Ohio State isn't without offensive issues of its own.

Both the Buckeyes and Wolverines have spent their seasons subconsciously fighting proxy wars against common opponents. The numbers are all there, ripe for dissection and analysis.

But for all of the advanced stats that have flowered into being in recent years, the biggest storylines are reductive. Michigan has beaten Ohio State three times this century (2000, 2003, 2011). For someone like me, who grew up in the '90s when the situation was different but I wasn't quite old enough to appreciate it, I haven't known much else. Even in 2011, Michigan barely eked by a bad, Luke Fickell-coached Buckeyes squad.

In this game, there are no tricks or fancy ideas. There are no easy ways. You could even say that, for the most part, there are no lucky bounces or fluke plays (certainly not of the Auburn-Alabama "kick six" variety).

The winning team, more often than not, is the better team; in the '90s, Michigan wasn't always the better team heading into the game, but they were the better team on that one day in November.

Without a doubt, Michigan's defense cannot afford to be thoroughly outplayed like it was last year in Ann Arbor, to the tune of 42 points. Unlike the 2006 matchup, when the Buckeyes scored 42 and Michigan fell just short with 39, this team isn't built to meet that challenge.

That will be especially true if O'Korn starts. Speight may be able to play, but maybe the doubt being cast about his status could just be a classic case of gamesmanship. At this point, who knows.

Certain things will have to happen for Michigan to win. Facing talented athletes like JT Barrett and Curtis Samuel, the tackling simply has to be better. And, when pass rushers get to Barrett, they have to bring him down. Of course, that's easier said than done -- after all, memories of Braxton Miller, Terrelle Pryor and Troy Smith are recent evidence of that. Those ghosts linger, have lingered, for many a year. A step too slow, a step misplaced, and the ghost has escaped, over and over again, living to haunt another year.

Michigan will have to bring those apparitions down, this time. This time, Michigan fans hope that Don Brown has the answers DJ Durkin, Greg Robinson and Ron English couldn't find.

On the bright side for Michigan, the Buckeyes have not seen a defense like Michigan's to date. Further still, the Ohio State offense has struggled against lesser teams, including against Northwestern and a Malik McDowell-less Michigan State.

But, as we all know, those sorts of things tend not to matter when it's time for The Game. Both teams, in theory, will be bringing their best, including previously unseen wrinkles and miscellaneous fancy machinations.

Like any rivalry, the big-time players will leave their mark, either as landmark moments in lore or as markers of what could have been. Last year, Barrett and Co. rolled over Michigan with ease. This time, Michigan will need, among others, its best player, Jabrill Peppers, to have his moment. His Woodson, his Howard, his Biakabutuka. Peppers can very easily shut down the whispers of "overrated" by playing his best game on Saturday. On defense, on offense, on special teams, Michigan will need Peppers to leave his mark.

Michigan has spent its season showing flashes, revealing little tricks here and there with their superstar from New Jersey. Through it all, fans have wondered if there are additional wrinkles in the bag of tricks, beyond what we've already seen, tricks that would ostensibly be deployed down the road on a Saturday afternoon in November.

Well, the wait is over. There is nothing left to save, nothing left to hide. On Saturday, everything will be tinged with finality.

It won't be No. 1 versus No. 2, but it'll be close enough. In reality, in the new playoff world, it will mean just as much as that November day in 2006, when everything hung in the balance.

All roads lead to this. As the opening kickoff rises into the sky, Michigan will have a chance to decide: Will it tackle the ghost?

Or, will the ghost slip through them yet again, incorporeal and unattainable?

For now, we wonder. On Saturday, that ghost will reappear, to haunt or ... to be defeated.

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