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Ankony: 3 Questions Ahead of Indiana's Matchup with Michigan

One of the worst losses of the Jim Harbaugh era came last week in Michigan’s 27-24 downfall to Michigan State. After a 2-0 start for Indiana with a breakthrough win over Penn State, the two programs seem to be on opposite trajectories this year. 

If the first two weeks of the Big Ten college football season were all that mattered, one could make a great case for Indiana to win this game, but history says otherwise. Indiana trails 59-9 in the all-time series and has lost 24 straight contests versus Michigan dating back to 1987.

Michael Penix during last year's game against Michigan in Bloomington. (Bailey Wright/HN)

A noon kickoff could help Indiana catch the Wolverines sleeping, but Michigan has had success in situations similar to this weekend. Under Harbaugh, Michigan is 5-0 following their first loss, out-scoring opponents 183-40. 

So, can Indiana really take down no. 23 Michigan and claim its second top 25-win of the season? Here are the three biggest questions surrounding Indiana’s ability to defeat the Wolverines on Nov. 7.

Can IU’s offensive line hold its own?

While it has been a frustrating start to the season for Michigan, the strength of this team starts in the trenches. The Wolverines’ defensive line has held opponents to 255 combined rushing yards in the first two games. On the other side, the Michigan offensive line has powered the offense to 408 rushing yards. 

The numbers don’t tell the whole story, though, as Michigan possesses a number of lineman who will play on Sundays next year. Starting with Kwity Paye, the Michigan edge rusher who projects to be a first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Indiana offensive line will have its hands full on Saturday.

Paye has harassed opposing quarterbacks early on with two sacks to lead the Wolverines. He will be a constant threat to get to Michael Penix Jr. in the backfield, making Saturday a crucial game for the Indiana offensive line. 

Another projected first-round pick on the Michigan defensive line is Aidan Hutchinson, who has yet to sack the quarterback this season, but has surely made his 6’6” 269 pound presence known. Hutchinson leads the Michigan pass rush with 13 tackles this season.

Indiana has managed to keep a balanced offensive attack in the first two games, and will need to keep Paye and Hutchinson out of the backfield on Saturday. Center Harry Crider is the leader of the Indiana offensive line that has been shaky at times this year, ranking last in the Big Ten in rushing yards with 150.

Starting right tackle Matthew Bedford momentarily left the game versus Rutgers with an injury, but head coach Tom Allen clarified this week that Bedford will remain in his starting position at right guard. Bedford, along with left tackle Caleb Jones will likely receive the majority of the blocking duties against Paye, while Crider and the Indiana guards figure to see more of Hutchinson on the interior.

In order to defeat Michigan on Saturday, Indiana cannot become one dimensional. The dangerous one-two punch of Stevie Scott and Sampson James started to emerge against Rutgers last week, but it will truly be a team effort to get past the Michigan front seven.

Can Michael Penix Jr. exploit an underachieving Michigan secondary? 

Earlier this week, it was discussed how Indiana’s secondary has emerged as possibly the strongest position group on the team. Conversely, Michigan’s secondary was a major reason Michigan State was able to upset the Wolverines last week. On The Hoosier Network’s Indiana football podcast, Michigan student reporter Daniel Dash detailed how the Michigan secondary has possibly been the team’s weakest unit. (hyperlink to podcast)

In the loss to Michigan State, Spartan quarterback Rocky Lombardi picked apart the Michigan secondary and capitalized on big plays, throwing for 323 yards and three touchdowns on just 17 completions. 

Lombardi’s favorite target was Ricky White, who caught eight passes for 196 yards and a touchdown. This could foreshadow a big day for the Penix to Whop Philyor connection that produced 137 yards versus Rutgers. For Penix, a more efficient start to the game is crucial to his ability to settle down and find a rhythm.

According to Pro Football Focus, Michigan’s has the 91st ranked pass coverage defense. Michigan linebacker’s coach Brian Jean-Mary said this week that the Wolverines will try to use their linebackers to assist the defensive backs in pass coverage, but at the end of the day, he said fixing these coverage problems comes down to fundamentals.

“We’re not going to reinvent the wheel,” Jean-Mary said. “It comes down to the fundamentals, putting your eyes in the right place. Using the right techniques and doing the things we’ve coached.”

Can Indiana put together a complete game?

Indiana is off to a 2-0 start, but execution in these wins have been far from perfect. Penix was the hero of the Penn State win with his dive for the pylon, but for the majority of the game, he did not look sharp. 

The same was true in the first quarter versus Rutgers, as Penix struggled with accuracy early on. Once Penix was able to find a rhythm, Indiana was just 2-for-12 on third down with multiple drops from Indiana receivers in important situation. 

The Hoosiers also hurt themselves versus Rutgers, committing 11 penalties for 119 yards. This game could have been a blowout from the start, but two roughing the passer penalties on third down allowed Rutgers to score its first two touchdowns of the game.

Against Rutgers, Allen’s word of the week was “focus.” Although no. 13 Indiana sits ahead of no. 23 Michigan in the rankings, Michigan is still favored by three and a half points. Allen chose “elevate” as the word for this week, but focus throughout the entire game will be required for the Hoosiers to claim their second top 25 win of the season.

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