ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan football kept clinging to its slim Big Ten title and playoff hopes with a win over Indiana this weekend, but now it’s time for the program to do something it hasn’t done in a long time: finish the season strong.
Saturday’s game went about as expected. Michigan hosted a team that’s winless in the Big Ten and playing with a third-string quarterback, and the Wolverines proceeded to put up 400 yards and 29 points while shutting down the Hoosiers to the tune of 195 yards and one score.
It was a dominating effort start to finish, and a needed bounce-back from Michigan’s crushing choke job in East Lansing. Cade McNamara was solid again, passing for 168 yards and two touchdowns on just 18 attempts. Hassan Haskins cemented himself as the team’s top running back with 188 total yards.
The only concern for Michigan coming out of this game is injuries. Erick All and Donovan Edwards didn’t see the field. Blake Corum limped off in the first half. Top cornerback Gemon Green left and didn’t return. Both Andrel Anthony and A.J. Henning exited early.
The Wolverines can’t afford to be without any of those players as they eye another difficult road test at Penn State.
History of limping to finish line
It’s no secret that under Jim Harbaugh, the program has a tendency to struggle late in the season. That dates back to his best team, in 2016.
That year, the Wolverines were 9-0 before losing three of their final four games -- at Iowa, at Ohio State and against Florida State in the Orange Bowl. Those three losses came by a combined five points.
Michigan was 8-2 before losing three in a row to end 2017, 10-1 before dropping the last two games in 2018 and 9-2 before back-to-back losses in 2019. All of those seasons had a common denominator: When the schedule got tough, Michigan crumbled.
Like in past seasons, Michigan hasn’t had many chances to prove itself against top-tier competition in 2021. Its only game against a true contender came against Michigan State, and everyone knows how that one turned out.
Now, just like in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019, Michigan will face some of the toughest challenges in November. History suggests it won’t go well.
Penn State woes
The Wolverines are also hoping to reverse their fortunes in Happy Valley, where Penn State has won five of the last six meetings.
Harbaugh beat James Franklin during his first trip to Penn State in 2015, but the 2017 rematch was a massacre in the wrong direction. Michigan should have won the last time it traveled to Penn State, but spotting the Nittany Lions a 21-0 lead proved fatal.
Last year, Penn State came into Ann Arbor with an 0-5 record and bullied Michigan to get its first win of the season. Franklin has now won three of the last four against Michigan, and Penn State is 7-4 in head-to-head matchups since snapping a nine-game losing streak in the rivalry in 2008.
Penn State picked up its first win in over a month Saturday against Maryland and is looking to play spoiler in the Big Ten East. Wins at Wisconsin and against Auburn prove this team is still dangerous.
If Michigan can find a way to survive the next two weeks at Penn State and Maryland, it will likely set up another top-10 rivalry game -- this time at home against Ohio State.
The Buckeyes have rounded into form and appear headed for another College Football Playoff push. Michigan and Michigan State are the only obstacles in their way.
Michigan has other business to take care of first, but on the topic of trying to break trends -- it’s been a decade since the last win against Ohio State. A decade.
The next three weeks will determine whether 2021 is remembered as a special year for Michigan or just another season of building up hopes to bring them crashing down.