Ann Arbor — And now, it’s on to The Game, Michigan-Ohio State, and a chance for the Wolverines to win the Big Ten East Division and play for a Big Ten title.
But first things first … wait, scratch that. Michigan had a forgettable first half in its final home regular-season game Saturday and saw its new starting quarterback, John O’Korn, facing difficult weather conditions, struggle to get the offense going.
Senior running back De’Veon Smith, who had a career-best day with 158 yards and two long rushing touchdowns in the second half in his final home game, was the difference against Indiana in a 20-10 victory. Michigan, coming off a loss at Iowa, is now 10-1, 7-1 Big Ten heading into Columbus next week.
“Now it’s finally here we can zero in on it and put all our focus toward it, because this one (facing the Buckeyes) is for all the marbles,” said linebacker Jabrill Peppers, who had five tackles, two tackles for loss and a pass breakups. “Everything we want is right in front of us. We’ve just got to go out and execute.”
Michigan has not won a Big Ten title since 2004 and has not won in Columbus since 2000. Ohio State has won 13 of the last 15 games against Michigan and four straight.
But the Wolverines had to get past Indiana first. The players had embraced a win-or-go-home approach these last few weeks.
“Winning this game feels like one of the best wins I’ve ever been involved with because it was a playoff game,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “It was beating a tough Indiana team, and we have a lot of respect for them. They’re a heck of a football team. And the elements, too. Feel good about our football team.”
O’Korn made his first start at quarterback for the Wolverines with Wilton Speight in uniform but on the sideline with a left shoulder injury suffered late in the Iowa game, and did not look sharp in the first half on a cold, windy day with snow flurries. Harbaugh said after the game that Speight remains “day to day.”
In his first Michigan start, O’Korn was 7-of-16 for 59 yards and took two sacks. But it was his 30-yard run on third down — the Wolverines’ second of 10 third-down conversions at that point — after a strong performance by the defense on the previous drive, that sparked the offense and Smith’s first touchdown in the second half.
“The opportunity presented itself on third and long,” O’Korn said. “I thought I was going to score. Got tackled from behind.”
Kenny Allen made field goals from 28 and 33 yards. He has made 10 straight since struggling earlier in the season. His first field goal provided Michigan’s only first-half points — Indiana led 7-3 — and his 33-yarder early in the third quarter pulled the Wolverines within 7-6.
Michigan’s first touchdown was set up by O’Korn’s long run on third-and-eight to the Indiana 34-yard line. Smith then scored his first touchdown, a 34-yarder with a hat tip to receiver Jehu Chesson for a downfield block. That gave the Wolverines their first lead at 13-10 and they never looked back.
Two drives later, Smith added a second long touchdown with a 39-yarder, building the 10-point lead.
“The offensive line got a great push,” Smith said. “Really not much to say. They were sending somebody off the edge, you’ve got to speed up the footwork as a running back. The offensive line did a great job and the receivers did, too.”
With the challenging weather conditions — late in the game it was about 20 degrees with the wind chill and falling snow covered the field and made visibility difficult — O’Korn said he knew it was going to be up to the run game.
The Wolverines, who were 0-for-7 on third down in the first half and had 64 yards rushing on 21 carries, finished with 225 yards rushing and averaged 4.5 yards a carry. Smith averaged 6.9 yards a carry.
“It felt like old-fashioned slobber-knocker football,” Harbaugh said.
Michigan also blocked two punts for a special teams boost and Allen had punts in the first half that gave Indiana difficult field position from its own 4- and 1-yard lines.
The defense held Indiana to 255 yards, including 191 passing. The goal-line defense held Indiana, which had reached the Michigan 5-yard line, to a 24-yard field goal that made it 10-6 in the third quarter.
Harbaugh said he likes where the team is heading into the regular-season finale at Ohio State.
“We’re playing for the championship next week,” Harbaugh said. “I thought it started today. This was a championship game, because it keeps our team in it. It feels like a playoff game. Felt like and still does feel like it, a playoff win.”