Michigan at Indiana
► Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Memorial Stadium, Bloomington, Indiana
► TV/radio: ESPN/950 AM
► Records: Michigan 8-2, 5-2 Big Ten; Indiana 7-3, 4-3
► Line: Michigan by 9½
View from the other side
Jon Blau covers Indiana athletics for The Herald-Times in Bloomington. He breaks down the Hoosiers for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Saturday’s Michigan-Indiana game at Memorial Stadium. You can follow him on Twitter at @Jon_Blau.
► Question: Indiana has had a terrific season. Broad question, but ... what has been the difference?
► Blau: Part of this probably has to do with the strength of the Hoosiers' schedule. Their nonconference wins came over teams with a combined 7-24 record, while IU's conference victories came over opponents with an 11-29 mark. The Hoosiers had a chance to build momentum in a four-game stretch with Rutgers, Maryland, Nebraska, and Northwestern, and they did just that.
On the other hand, those Big Ten wins did demonstrate an improved ability not to fold in critical moments, which had become a somewhat dubious hallmark of the program. IU came away with clutch turnovers in the final quarter of a six-point win at Maryland. At Nebraska, Peyton Ramsey and the offense produced big plays in a 38-31 shootout.
Drilling down a bit more, the improvement of the offense as a whole is probably the biggest key. The Big Ten's No. 10 team in total offense from 2018 has jumped to No. 2, boosted by the conference's No. 1 passing offense. Offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer, who came over from Fresno State, deserves a ton of credit. So does Ramsey, last year's starter, who was demoted in fall camp, but has come on to replace the oft-injured Michael Penix Jr.
Ramsey threw an interception in every game but two last season. He has just three picks in eight contests this year.
► Question: Redshirt freshman quarterback Michael Penix is out for the rest of the season with a shoulder injury and redshirt junior Peyton Ramsey is back as starter. How did Ramsey handle not winning the job out of camp and what does he bring to the offense?
► Blau: IU coach Tom Allen has remarked over and over again about the character Ramsey has displayed since his demotion in fall camp. In this "transfer portal era," it wouldn't have raised any eyebrows if the redshirt junior tried to find a way to leave IU and look for another starting job elsewhere.
But he stayed because, as Ramsey put it, he had too many relationships in the Hoosiers' locker room to walk away, and he felt like he might be needed at some point. He was proven right, because Penix had to leave three games early in this season, missing another three altogether before going out for the year with a right sternoclavicular injury.
Ramsey doesn't have the extraordinary arm strength of Penix, which means he can't make some of the cross-field or tight-window throws that the redshirt freshman could. But he seems to be seeing the field better this year (i.e., less interceptions) and has played with more anticipation and timing to make up for a lack of a real cannon.
He's not a "dual-threat" in the purest sense, but he is also a good scrambler, when the opportunity arises. He really has the respect of his teammates and was recently added as a captain for the rest of the 2019 season.
► Question: How different is the defense since head coach Tom Allen turned it over to Kane Wommack this season?
► Blau: The defense isn't all that different schematically because Wommack's father, Dave, actually schooled Allen on the 4-2-5 defense. The younger Wommack was a grad assistant at Ole Miss from 2012-13, when Allen worked there are a linebackers coach and special teams coordinator for the Rebels.
As an Allen disciple of sorts, Kane Wommack will bring the blitz. They send an extra rusher about half the time, which does leave the Hoosiers' corners in some one-on-one matchups. Running quarterbacks have actually been an issue because IU's blitz hasn't always gotten home and the Hoosiers' corners have been dragged downfield in man coverages.
This isn't an elite defense by any stretch, but they are young and developing. Five of IU's top eight d-linemen are freshmen and sophomores. The linebacking corps consists of two sophomores, a redshirt freshman, and a senior. The top two corners are a freshman and a sophomore.
Last week at Penn State was IU's best defensive effort yet, especially on first and second downs. They just struggled on third down, allowing the Nittany Lions to convert 7-of-14.
► Question: The last two UM-IU games in Bloomington have gone to overtime. To what do you owe that?
►Blau: Not sure what cosmic forces are at work here. But if you point to those two contests, the 2015 and '17 squads for IU had strengths they could bring to bear on the Wolverines.
Four years ago, the Hoosiers were led by a pair of current Philadelphia Eagles, quarterback Nate Sudfeld and running back Jordan Howard. The offensive line also had future pros in Dan Feeney (Chargers) and Jason Spriggs (Packers). That was a more talented team than people credit, and they were fully capable of creating a double-overtime, 48-41, affair on any given night.
The 2017 contest was in Allen's second year as defensive coordinator — and first as head coach — and the Hoosiers were still in the midst of a magnificent turnaround on that side of the ball. They ranked ninth nationally in third-down defense, and Michigan was just 2-of-13 on third downs in a 27-20 game. That was a really good defensive team.
Hard to say. Those were just two games where the Hoosiers played to their strengths.
►Question: Do you think this will be a close game again?
►Blau: It certainly can be.
While Michigan is rolling right now, this could set up as a "trap" game for the Wolverines because of their looming showdown with Ohio State at the end of the regular-season schedule. IU should be up for this one after a tough road loss at Penn State.
Like most games, it will come down to the battle at the line of scrimmage. If IU's offensive line can handle the Wolverines' front and protect Ramsey, this is a pass offense capable of producing yards. On the other side of the ball, IU's defensive line has to be able to get pressure on Shea Patterson without allowing him to scramble and extend plays overly much.
If the Hoosiers can't do those two things, it could be a long day for them.
Players to watch
►Peyton Ramsey, QB: The redshirt junior quarterback is no stranger to facing Michigan. He lost the starting job coming out of camp to redshirt freshman Michael Penix Jr., who has been sidelined for the rest of the season with shoulder joint injury. Ramsey has started four times this season and appeared in eight games, and he has started 20 times and appeared in 29 games in his career. Ramsey is 144-of-198 (72.7 percent, which 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.
►Stevie Scott, RB: Scott, a sophomore running back, is 72 yards from becoming the 14th Hoosier to reach 2,000 rushing yards, and he is 209 yards from becoming the fifth Indiana running back with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and the first to do so his freshman and sophomore campaigns. Scott has gained 100 yards or more three of the last five weeks, and his nine 100-yard games are tied for the 10th-most in program history. Scott has 791 yards, which is fourth in the Big Ten, on 165 carries and has nine rushing touchdowns. He is fourth in the conference with a 79.1 average per game. Scott is second among all Big Ten backs with 25 catches for 211 yards and averages 100.2 all-purpose yards, ninth in the league.
► Reakwon Jones, LB: The fifth-year senior is the most experienced of Indiana’s linebackers. He has made 20 straight starts and played in 41 career games at weakside linebacker. The 6-2, 233-pound Jones had a big moment this season in the win over Rutgers when he picked up a fumble — the second recovery of his career — and returned it 17 yards for his first touchdown. Jones is second on the team with 43 tackles and 29 solo.
Facts and figures
► Some firsts: Indiana is first in the Big Ten in pass offense and 13th nationally, averaging 314.3 yards, and is tied for first in sacks allowed (tied for 31st nationally), is second in total offense (448.0, 31st) and tied for third in fumbles lost with five, which ties the Hoosiers for 32nd nationally.
► Home sweet home: Indiana is 4-1 at Memorial Stadium this season, its best mark since 1993. Michigan is 18-1 at Memorial Stadium, including 10 straight — the last two games at IU went to overtime (Michigan won 48-41 in double overtime in 2015, and 27-20 in overtime in 2017). The Wolverines’ only loss in Bloomington in that stretch was a 14-10 defeat in 1987.
► Flirting with top-25: Before the Hoosiers loss at Penn State last Saturday, they were ranked No. 24 in the AP poll. That’s the first time since Sept. 20, 1994, they’ve been ranked in that poll, the same year they were ranked No. 25 in the Coaches’ poll Oct. 17, 1994. Indiana dropped out of the top 25 this week, but received 47 votes in the AP poll.