Ann Arbor – It’s the game before The Game, so it just has to be a “trap game.” At least that’s the easy approach, suggesting that a team’s focus is only on the big prize ahead and not the upcoming game.
Michigan, ranked No. 12, plays at Indiana on Saturday, a week before the Wolverines face unbeaten Ohio State in The Game at Michigan Stadium. The Buckeyes are 10-0 in Ryan Day’s first season as coach and are No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings and are projected to be in the four-team playoff.
The Buckeyes have won seven straight against Michigan and 14 of the last 15.
Whoa, wait just a minute. Michigan plays the Hoosiers on Saturday, not Ohio State, so enough about the Buckeyes. See, it's easy to look ahead.
Do coaches and players actually believe in the concept of the trap game, where a team loses focuses, maybe doesn’t prepare as hard because it thinks the opponent is a walkover and has its sights set on the next game and then … loses?
“I guess, yeah,” Michigan running backs coach Jay Harbaugh said Wednesday, before quickly dismissing that's possible this week. “I don’t think this is one by any means. Our players all know what kind of program Indiana is. They’re a program that’s put a lot of guys in the NFL, they’ve played a lot of teams tough, they’ve played us extremely tough.
“No one in this program has never been in a game with any real separation with these guys, players or coaches, so our guys know we need to be at our best, players and coaches. And on top of all that, this is the best team they’ve had and that doesn’t go unnoticed being on our side of the division. You see them play against common opponents and you can’t help but notice that kinda stuff and we’ve been noticing as the year goes on, hey this always a big game, it’s probably going to be an even bigger one this week.”
The Hoosiers are 7-3, 4-3 Big Ten, under head coach Tom Allen. Indiana is first in the Big Ten in pass offense and 13th nationally, averaging 314.3 yards, and is second in the conference in total offense (448 yards per game) and tied for third in fewest fumbles lost with five, which ties the Hoosiers for 32nd nationally.
Indiana is 4-1 at Memorial Stadium this season, its best mark since 1993. Michigan is 18-1 at Memorial Stadium, including 10 straight victories, but the Hoosiers have pushed the Wolverines to their limits the last two meetings in Bloomington. Michigan won 48-41 in double overtime in 2015 and 27-20 in overtime in 2017.
So, yes, the Hoosiers have the Wolverines’ undivided attention.
“I don’t think it’s difficult to not look past them at all,” left tackle Jon Runyan said this week. “Indiana was ranked in the AP last week. They were down by three to Penn State (last Saturday) with nine minutes to go. They were hanging in there with Penn State. They’re a good offense, kinda similar to what we do. It will be fun to see them match up with our defense.
“Last times we’ve been to Bloomington we’ve gone to overtime. There’s just something about them they always get the best of us. Last year right before halftime they were beating us. Good solid players up and down their defense.”
The Hoosiers have won four of their last five, but are coming off a 34-27 loss at Penn State. In the third game of the season, they lost to then-No. 6 Ohio State, 51-10, and lost two weeks later to then-No. 25 Michigan State 40-31.
Redshirt junior Peyton Ramsey, who lost the starting quarterback job to redshirt freshman Michael Penix Jr. in preseason camp, has started the last four games, replacing Penix, who is out with a shoulder joint injury. Ramsey is 144-of-198, a 72.7 percent completion rate that ranks fourth nationally and first in the Big Ten, for 1,673 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. Ramsey has 153 rushing yards, second on the team, with three scores on 54 rushes.
“I’ve always thought Peyton Ramsey was a terrific quarterback,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, whose team has won six of its last seven, including rivalry wins at home against Notre Dame and Michigan State. “He played against us a true freshman and played really well. Played a lot of good football. A very experienced quarterback now. They do a good job; they can get on the edge, they can throw (and) they can power the football, as well.
“I think they’re as challenging as any offense in the Big Ten. Receivers that are dynamic, can make plays down the field; are quick, fast and catch the ball and run with it.”
Michigan has been gaining steam as the season has gone on and many suggest the second half of the loss at Penn State was the turning point for the offense. Harbaugh said this week the offense, under first-year coordinator Josh Gattis, has grown gradually and are starting to fulfill Gattis’ speed-in-space promise. UM is void of turnovers the last 14 quarters, Shea Patterson is finally fully healthy at quarterback, and the Michigan run game has been a strong complement to the pass game.
The Big Ten championship is no longer within the Wolverines’ reach, not with two losses, but they’ve been single-minded in a play-by-play, game-by-game approach. One of their goals when they set out this season was to beat their rivals and so far are 2-0 with Ohio State looming. Oops, there’s that trap-game approach again.
“I wouldn't say we ever really had to reassess our team goals, but we just knew we had to keep our eyes on the prize and take it one week at a time, one game at a time,” defensive end Mike Danna said. “We really emphasize just taking it one play at a time. Every time we're on the field, we just say one play at a time, one down at a time. Don't worry about the next down or the next play, just worry about what you can do now, what you can handle now.”
That’s the mindset the players have carried into this week to avoid the possibility of looking ahead.
“We can't look past any opponent,” Danna said. “We've got to focus on our game this week. We've got to prepare right. We've got to prepare to the best of our ability and come out ready on Saturday.”
Said Jim Harbaugh: “Indiana is going to be tough to beat, but we’ll be tough to beat, too.”