Questions We're Asking After Michigan's 39-14 Win At Indiana
Where was this all year? More importantly, where was this against Wisconsin and why did it take Michigan football a half to unleash all of its passing-game weapons at Penn State? The short answer: U-M wasn't ready yet.
The long answer: well a lot longer than that.
Senior QB Shea Patterson struggled out of the gate. He was inaccurate throwing short, intermediate and deeper routes. He didn't keep very much on read-option, allowing defenses to lock in on freshman tailback Zach Charbonnet, who was the only dependable ball carrier early in the season. He also panicked anytime he felt the pocket collapse (even if there was no need to do so).
But it wasn't all on Patterson. Michigan's other runners were either not healthy (senior Tru Wilson) or not reliable as pass protectors (redshirt freshman Christian Turner) or simply not on the scene yet (redshirt freshman Hassan Haskins).
The offensive line wasn't pushing people around in the run game, the receivers were dropping too many balls, and everyone was turning the ball over. Among the coaches, first-year coordinator Josh Gattis seemed unsure of his personnel, who he could trust and how to best use Patterson's strengths (and limit his weaknesses).
In other words, there was a huge feeling-out process early in the season, and on top of that players weren't making plays when Gattis had a good call, or they were dropping or turning it over.
There were some bad coaching decisions, like inserting Ben Mason in at tailback at the 10-yard line at Wisconsin after he spent the spring and fall camp at defensive tackle; or overreacting to Haskins' single missed assignment on pass pro in Week 1 that kept him out of the lineup until October; or (and this is cheating because its the defensive side of the ball) putting safeties on Penn State slot receiver KJ Hamler.
The coaches aren't perfect and their mistakes were magnified because they came in the toughest games, on the road, eventually in losses.
Let's face it, though, unless Patterson found his rhythm, which was lacking as he completed just 57.0 percent of his passes in the first nine games, Michigan's offense was relegated to handing it off and hoping for one or two big plays downfield to junior WR Nico Collins. It sounds silly to suggest Patterson flipped a switch but the passer he was at Maryland Nov. 2 and the passer he was against Michigan State two weeks later, following a bye, were two different throwers.
Maybe he is a great hustler, more likely he found his confidence during the bye week, and Michigan's receivers, its coaches, and its overall offense are reaping the rewards.
Can Michigan beat Ohio State? Anything is possible.
Penn State outscored Ohio State 17-14 in the second half Saturday behind a backup QB (Will Levis), who was essentially a one-trick pony as a read-option run-first quarterback. The Nittany Lions found success running at OSU's defense and forced three turnovers, including one as Buckeye quarterback Justin Fields was about to cross the goal line for a touchdown.
OSU defensive end Chase Young will have to be dealt with and the rushing combo of Fields and tailback JK Dobbins is as formidable as pair in college football, but the Scarlet and Gray also looked mortal Saturday, cracking for a stretch under the pressure as PSU rattled off 17 unanswered points (and should have had 21 to tie the game if not for a dropped pass at the five-yard line).
All year, OSU has been dominant, rolling over its competition, but the Buckeyes have rarely been punched in the mouth and when they were, no one knew how they would respond. They didn't respond very well, especially offensively where Dobbins and Fields coughed up the football on back-to-back third-quarter possessions.
Eventually, the Ohio State defense (with an interception) and offense (the game-clinching touchdown pass in the fourth quarter) rose up but Penn State cracked the invincibility armor the Buckeyes had been wearing all season.
Like PSU, Michigan's defense is strong against the run (allowing just 67.4 yards per game over its last eight) and has the type of pass rushes that can harass Fields to force errant throws. Penn State's forced a number of inaccurate throws but Buckeye wide receivers made some outstanding grabs. U-M will have to do a better job than the Nittany Lions at breaking up those passes.
Offensively, as noted, Michigan is playing its best football this season and while Ohio State boasts some of the nation's top defensive backs, including cornerback Jeff Okudah (expected to be the first corner drafted next spring), U-M's highly-ranked receivers were recruited for this moment, to provide plays for the Wolverines.
If the offensive line can win enough battles with Young, and Patterson stays in this incredible groove he's been in, and the defense plays up to its potential (even if that means giving up 24-28 points) Michigan will have a chance.
It's up to the coaches to motivate, inspire, prepare and call their best games of the Jim Harbaugh era. It's time to beat Ohio State.
Will Indiana ever beat U-M? Probably not. No, the Hoosiers will at some point. When? Who knows. It's been 24 straight wins for Michigan over Indiana dating back to 1988 and 39 of the past 40 dating back to 1968. Minnesota (2014), Purdue (2009), Illinois (2008 and 2009), Rutgers (2014) and Maryland (2014) took advantage of the Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke eras but IU went 0-4 vs. Michigan during that seven-year stretch.
The Wolverines have had some close calls with Indiana the past few years so it would be naive to say it would never happen, but with the talent discrepancy between programs, there is a reason Ohio State and Michigan consistently pound IU and every Big Ten East program not named Penn State.
It will happen, but I'm not predicting U-M to lose in 2020 at home, and if I was a Hoosiers fan I would get used to eight-win seasons (with losses to OSU, U-M, PSU and usually MSU) to be your program's ceiling.