Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Michigan 27, Indiana 20 (OT): Deja vu

As I watched Saturday's game in Bloomington, I felt as if I was transported to a time in the not-too-distant past.

No, not the 2015 Indiana game, which also ended with a Michigan overtime win (and a touchdown on the first play of the winning overtime drive).

Saturday's game felt like the bizarro version of another game, another win that left residual dread in its wake in spite of the outcome.

That game, of course, is the 2010 Illinois game, a 67-65 win of Pyrrhic proportions for Michigan — despite coming ahead in the box score, the result reflected a deeper rot. A sharp poke and the whole structure wobbled on the verge of collapse. The program's wooden support beams were hollowed with insatiable termites — that much became clear once the euphoria subsided and fans collectively exhaled a whoosh of air indistinguishable from a sigh of relief.

This past Saturday's game reminded me of that, but the other way around.

Instead of the ceaseless offense of that 2010 Illinois game — an experience akin to an afternoon spent eating sleeve after sleeve of Oreos — Michigan and Indiana drudged through your standard Big Ten noon slugfest. Offensive ineptitude and defensive dominance converged, repulsed by each other like the like poles of two magnets.

At the end of it, John O'Korn finished 10-for-20 for 58 yards.

As an undergrad, that Illinois game was fun to watch in the stadium (after all, my graduating class didn't have many signature wins to celebrate, so we had to take what we could get). Michigan couldn't stop Illinois and Illinois couldn't stop Michigan. It was instant gratification taken to the extreme.

When it was over, though, reality set in. Michigan had won, but it was not a confidence-inspiring thing. Michigan moved to 6-3, but games against Wisconsin and Ohio State remained on the schedule.

If anything, the outcome only further affirmed that Michigan was not a serious football program. A win is a win, but giving up 65 points at home is not something good teams do.

With that said, I'm not saying Michigan is in the same situation now. Jim Harbaugh is a better coach than Rich Rodriguez, and the overall direction of the program is still generally trending upward, even if this season is shaping up to be a step back (albeit not an unexpected one).

Still, it was hard to watch Saturday's game and not draw parallels to that Illinois game. In the context of this singular season, at least, Saturday's win was not a great thing, insofar as a road win against a team with a decent defense can be considered as such.

Just like that Rodriguez team — and every Rodriguez team — lacked a semblance of a defense, this one lacks on the other side of the ball. Receivers are not getting open consistently, the offensive line has struggled and the quarterback (whether O'Korn or Wilton Speight) has killed drives with botched reads and general skittishness, at times understandable, in the pocket.

This year, it doesn't appear that a fix is coming. Harbaugh has done some great things in his coaching career, but this seems unsalvageable, even by him.

I won't pretend to guess at why Brandon Peters hasn't inserted himself into the discussion. I was at the spring game this year and saw him sling beautiful passes all over the field with confidence (I know, it's the spring game, but still).

Assuming O'Korn struggles again at Penn State, the logical thing to do would be giving Peters a shot against Rutgers, because even a quarterback sitting below O'Korn on the depth chat can't mess things up enough to lose that game — right?

That's the thing. Consider O'Korn's stat line: 10-for-20, 58 yards. It is bad.

But it can get worse.

As bad as O'Korn was against Michigan State, he didn't turn it over against Indiana. A small victory, to be sure, but imagine that game with one or two O'Korn turnovers sprinkled in.

What it comes down to is trust. If you trust Harbaugh, and you should, O'Korn will continue to start, even if he is generally ineffective again this Saturday, because Harbaugh sees these guys every day and has no reason not to play the guy he thinks gives them the best chance to win. That's not to say that great coaches don't make mistakes, but this would be a colossal mistake; I think Harbaugh has earned the benefit of the doubt.

At the same time, you could argue you won't truly know what Peters is until he enters a game for meaningful snaps.

Harbaugh has a decision to make. For all of the hand-wringing, Michigan's season is not over yet. The Wolverines are 5-1, even if it's a rickety 5-1, like Michigan's 5-0 (then 6-3, after Illinois) start in 2010. Find a way to win at Penn State and Wisconsin, take care of the rest, and, ostensibly, anything can happen in a rivalry game against Ohio State (even if recent history dictates that not to be true).

Sure, the above is likely not going to happen. Penn State and Wisconsin are pretty good, and expecting Michigan's defense to safeguard the razor-thin margin of error the offense affords it is probably asking too much.

Unlike 2010, however, the formula is much simpler.

Michigan's defense will most likely give it some sort of chance in every remaining game. Aside from some second-half slippage in Bloomington, Michigan mostly shut down the top receiver in the conference in Simmie Cobbs (4 receptions, 39 yards). If there's anything to wax poetic about, it's Michigan's young corners. Lavert Hill and David Long have exceeded what were already lofty expectations. Even Brandon Watson, deemed somewhat of "a guy," has contributed with some emphatic pass breakups and generally dependable play.

Offensively, as limited as the Wolverines are, there have been bright spots. Karan Higdon dashed for 200 yards on 25 carries, which, as you probably know by now, makes him the first Michigan running back to run for 200 yards in a game since Mike Hart. That probably speaks to the level of offensive line play over the last decade as much as anything else, but 200 yards rushing against a solid Indiana defense is something on which to build.

Harbaugh's offense has always worked by virtue of multiple formations — confusing the defense and then bludgeoning it.

Unfortunately, with the injury to Speight — who, yes, was the starter for a reason, as we are now seeing — and Tarik Black earlier in the season, in addition to the line's struggles, Michigan doesn't have the ability to make that work. The first half of the season has been a long struggle to find what is often called an "identity." What do you do well?

For this limited Michigan offense, we have some indication that power running is its identity — or, at least, the closest thing to one.

The formula isn't exciting, but it's clear. Michigan has to win with defense, running the ball, field position, and non-traditional scoring (either via the defense or special teams). Other programs have made a living out of that strategy; Virginia Tech, of course, comes to mind. While no disrespect is meant to those Virginia Tech teams, many of which were very good, in the long-term Michigan hopes to be more potent, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

For now, though, Michigan has to squeeze every bit of positive play that it can out of what it's got. It might not end up being enough, but it's the only way.

Another thing is clear: 58 yards isn't enough. Against Penn State, O'Korn will need to make some plays, in addition to protecting the ball. Even if O'Korn somehow quadruples his Indiana yardage total in Beaver Stadium, it might not be enough if he turns it over two or three times.

The margin for error is thin. Next year might be different with another year of seasoning for the linemen and receivers, in addition to, possibly, a new quarterback.

For now, though, this is what Michigan's got. This is where coaches make their money.

It's also where players either shine ... or wilt.

If Michigan puts up a fight against Penn State, and the outcome is still in question heading into the fourth quarter, I don't think anyone can be too upset. A 2008-esque blowout, on the other hand, would be somewhat of a confidence killer.

On Saturday, we'll find out which way the wind blows.

Miscellaneous Minutiae
  • I'm glad Karan Higdon took things into his own hands and scored on the first play of the overtime period. If he doesn't score there, I wonder how things would have turned out. 
  • Penalties? Yeah, I don't know either. When Michigan picked up that delay of game penalty on the beautifully designed shovel pass, Harbaugh yelling "come on, John!" was all of us. To be sure, it was a horribly officiated game (for both teams). Add in the team's youth and it's easy to chalk this one up as a particularly aberrant showing. 
  • Donovan Peoples-Jones didn't light the world on fire (4 receptions, 34 yards), but he did lead the Wolverines in that department ... which is not saying much, but still a positive for him, as it was his best game of the season. The learning curve was always going to be steep for him given the nature of his high school offense. Michigan can only hope that, in the absence of Black, DPJ can continue to grow each week. 
  • Yes, the Michigan defense did the thing where they throttle an opponent all game only to give up points late when said opponent is in desperation mode and the team's own offense is just trying to scrape by. Hey, it happens. Nonetheless, it was another solid day for the trusty defense. "Only" two sacks, but the defense notched seven tackles for loss, including 2.5 from Rashan Gary. 
  • This Michigan team is particularly fortunate to have a darn-near-automatic kicker like Quinn Nordin. The whole defense and special teams thing doesn't work so much if the offense can't turn what drives it puts together into points, particularly long field goals. If Michigan is going to have a chance in Happy Valley, I'm willing to bet Nordin will have to bury one, if not two kicks of 50-plus yards. Making those in a neutral environment or at home is one thing — making them at night in Happy Valley is another.