Michigan has reached the halfway point of the season and who the Wolverines are at this stage is pretty clear.
They are 5-1 (2-1 Big Ten) with a loss to in-state rival Michigan State, and they are distinguished by their defense, enhanced by some key special teams play, and have an under-construction-work-in-progress offense.
The Wolverines are coming off a 27-20 overtime victory at Indiana Saturday in quarterback John O’Korn’s second start in place of injured Wilton Speight. He threw for 58 yards while Karan Higdon led the rushing attack with 200 yards and three touchdowns, including the winning score in overtime.
And now comes the hard part with three games against top-10 teams in the final six regular-season games, and that starts at No. 2 Penn State in a Saturday night game at Beaver Stadium that has drawn ESPN's "College GameDay." The Wolverines also play at No. 5 Wisconsin and the regular-season finale against No. 6 Ohio State.
Michigan is 79th in scoring offense, averaging 27.2 points a game, but more importantly hasn’t had a touchdown pass in two and a half games since O’Korn threw a 12-yard pass to Zach Gentry with 11:34 left in the second quarter at Purdue on Sept. 23. He had taken over late in the first quarter when Speight was injured.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said the objective at Indiana was a run-heavy offense. Again, the defense played well, especially when it needed to stop the Hoosiers in overtime, and again, kicker Quinn Nordin came through with two field goals. Nordin has now made 10 straight.
Harbaugh was asked after the game if this is how Michigan must go forward, scrapping out close wins.
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Harbaugh said. “We can grow. We can learn and know that you will. I put myself back when I was true freshman, redshirt freshman or even a sophomore, redshirt sophomore, practically a junior in school, wasn’t a finished product by any means. I don’t think I could have gone out there as a true freshman like some of these guys are.
“But they’ve got something special. If you could dig deep and stay in a moment and not look for a soft shoulder to cry on or an excuse to be made while you’re in the moment, that’s something special.”
While much has been written and discussed about Michigan’s stagnant offense that seemed to reach that sluggish peak in the second half against Michigan State when the Wolverines kept trying to throw in ridiculous weather conditions and O’Korn had three interceptions, Harbaugh is remaining calm.
“The effort is really there and it was last week,” Harbaugh said, referring to the game against Michigan State. “There were mistakes made. We just got to grow from it and get them corrected. We knew what we were in for (at Indiana). We knew we were in for a football fight. Last time we were down here it went to double overtime. This time it goes to overtime. Indiana has a veteran ballclub and played very well, as they always going to.”
Higdon breathed life into that run-heavy game plan and had 200 yards rushing and three touchdowns, the last a 25-yarder in overtime that he pulled off on his own by bouncing left when he realized the middle was jammed. Higdon played behind a tinkered-with offensive line that has swapped out Nolan Ulizio for Juwann Bushell-Beatty at right tackle.The defense made a game-winning stop to pull out the win when Tyree Kinnel got the interception in the end zone. And Nordin is now 14 of 16 in field-goal attempts.
With half the regular season remaining, it has to be about finding balance in the offense and cutting down on the numerous penalties Michigan has been charged, including a program-record 16 against Indiana.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Harbaugh said. “We’re very humble about this. We move on to a big game (at Penn State), but this was a big game for our team. Mistakes were made, but it’s something we can really grow from.”
MICHIGAN AT PENN STATE
Kickoff: 7:30 Saturday, Beaver Stadium, State College, Pa.
Records: Michigan 5-1, 2-1 Big Ten; Penn State 6-0, 3-0
Line: Penn State by 11