Michigan football likely to face a true freshman at QB vs. Indiana on Saturday

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Free Press sports writer Michael Cohen looks ahead to Michigan football’s game against Indiana on Saturday:

Next up

Matchup: Indiana (2-6, 0-5 Big Ten) vs. No. 10 Michigan (7-1, 4-1 Big Ten).

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor.

TV/radio: Fox; WWJ-AM (950), WTKA-AM (1050).

Line: Wolverines by 19½.

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Know the foe

A year ago, Indiana was among the most surprising stories in college football as the Hoosiers posted three victories over ranked opponents — including Michigan — en route to a 6-1 record in Big Ten play and a trip to the Outback Bowl. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. ascended to national prominence with massive performances against Ohio State (491 yards, 5 TDs), Michigan (342 yards, 3 TDs) and Rutgers (238 yards, 4 TDs). The Hoosiers’ terrific season created heightened expectations for IU entering 2021, reflected by a preseason No. 17 ranking and plenty of fanfare surrounding Penix.

Indiana coach Tom Allen shakes the hand of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh after Wolverines' 38-21 loss on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Bloomington, Ind.
Indiana coach Tom Allen shakes the hand of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh after Wolverines' 38-21 loss on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Bloomington, Ind.

But nothing has gone to plan for the Hoosiers, who enter Saturday’s game without a win in conference play. Quarterback Michael Penix never regained the form he displayed last season and threw seven interceptions in the first five games. Injuries to Penix and backup Jack Tuttle forced the Hoosiers to start true freshman Donaven McCulley in their most recent loss to Maryland over the weekend as coach Tom Allen searches for ways to salvage the season. Indiana’s only victories came against Idaho and Western Kentucky. Three of their losses in Big Ten play were by 20 points or more. “We are what we are,” Allen said after a 38-35 loss to Maryland. “And we’re just going to keep battling, keep fighting and continue to do everything we can every single week to find ways to win football games."

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Three things we learned

McNamara can air it out: With tailbacks Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum navigating clogged running lanes, offensive coordinator Josh Gattis entrusted Cade McNamara to take advantage of a Michigan State pass defense ranked among the bottom 10 in the country. McNamara responded by posting career highs in pass attempts (44), completions (28) and passing yards (383). His willingness to attack the Spartans on vertical routes by tight end Erick All and wide receivers Andrel Anthony, Cornelius Johnson and Mike Sainristil gave the offense a new dimension. He also performed exceptionally well under pressure Saturday to buck a negative trend from the first seven games. McNamara completed 11 of 16 passes for 139 yards and a touchdown on plays when the Spartans generated pressure. “I don’t really care about that,” McNamara said when asked if he proved doubters wrong with his performance. “We lost, and that’s what I care about.”

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Michigan Wolverines quarterback Cade McNamara looks to pass during the first quarter against the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium, Oct. 30, 2021.
Michigan Wolverines quarterback Cade McNamara looks to pass during the first quarter against the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium, Oct. 30, 2021.

Red zone is a red flag: Among the reasons why U-M lost to MSU on Saturday was an inability to convert trips to the red zone into touchdowns. The Wolverines reached the MSU 20-yard line on six occasions and produced points on all of them — but four of those scores were field goals by Jake Moody, who kept the offense afloat at times. A dreary showing in East Lansing dropped Michigan to 84th in the country in touchdown percentage for drives that reach the red zone at 56.4%. The team’s overall red zone conversion rate of 92.3% speaks to how vital Moody has been for an offense prone to derailments. Minnesota leads the Big Ten in touchdown percentage in the red zone at 71.4% with Ohio State next at 68.6%, good enough for 22nd and 36th nationally. “I think us stalling out, I mean, it’s a variety of reasons,” McNamara said. “I think last game we weren’t able to get the ball in the end zone. We had our opportunities last week (against Northwestern) and we did not execute. It could be a combination of that as well this week. Obviously, we’re going to watch it on film. We know we have to do that and we have to get better.”

Players remain confident: How the Wolverines respond against Indiana will speak volumes about the legitimacy of the offseason culture change described ad nauseam the last two months. Coaches and players alike have said this team has a stronger, closer-knit bond than the 2020 squad that cracked and crumbled following an upset loss to Michigan State. That resolve will be tested during a week when uncomfortable questions are likely to be asked about coach Jim Harbaugh’s job security and how Michigan plans to right the ship after another rivalry loss. But confidence seemed high in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s game. Nearly all the U-M players who spoke to the media referenced the importance of staying together and regrouping to continue reaching for a spot in the Big Ten title game. “It’s going to be one of those things where we really just lock arms, grow together because a lot of people are going to hop off the bandwagon,” center Andrew Vastardis said. “But this season is not over. Not even close.”

Three things to watch

McCulley is next in line: With Penix and Tuttle described by Allen as “truly week to week” it seems like the freshman McCulley will get another start in Ann Arbor. McCulley is a former four-star recruit from Indianapolis who committed to Indiana over Iowa, Kentucky and MSU, among others. He completed 14 of 25 passes for 242 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions in the loss to Maryland over the weekend and drew strong reviews from his coach. Before Saturday, McCulley had attempted six passes this season and completed just one in relief against Ohio State. “He made some good throws,” Allen said. “Gave us a chance on a couple deep balls. Donovan is a good quarterback. He just needs to play. He’s got a real talent but he’s young. He’s really, really young. ... So I just felt like he showed some poise, showed some ability to scramble a little bit, extend the plays with his legs a little bit, find receivers open. Just made some good throws. Made some contested throws where he had some pressure in his face and had to put the ball in the right spot. I mean, he had a good, solid week of practice so I really expected him to play well and was hoping he would play well. But obviously you have to do it in the game, so that’s definitely one huge positive is his performance and just improvement on our offense.

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McFadden is disruptive: Indiana linebacker Micah McFadden has developed into one of the best players in the country. The senior ranks second in the nation in tackles for loss with 14 and leads the Hoosiers in sacks with 5½. He also has two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. With 479 snaps to his name, McFadden is the fifth-highest graded linebacker in the country among players with at least that many snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Malcolm Rodriguez of Oklahoma State and Devin Lloyd of Utah are the only players from major conferences ahead of him on that list. He was named midseason second-team All-America by Rivals and The Athletic. Indiana and Boston College were the only Power 5 schools to offer McFadden a scholarship coming out of Plant High School in Tampa, Florida, according to 247Sports.

Indiana's Micah McFadden (47) is congratulated by teammates after his fumble recovery during the first half of the Indiana versus Cincinnati football game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, September 18, 2021.
Indiana's Micah McFadden (47) is congratulated by teammates after his fumble recovery during the first half of the Indiana versus Cincinnati football game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, September 18, 2021.

Not enough takeaways: Allen was extremely critical of his defense following Saturday’s loss to Maryland. The Terrapins racked up 498 yards of total offense, including 419 through the air, and converted seven of 15 third downs to take a double-digit lead on four separate occasions and did not turn the ball over. An inability to generate takeaways on defense is what Allen said represents the biggest difference between this year’s IU team that is winless in Big Ten play and last year’s team that only lost to Ohio State. The Hoosiers are tied for 100th in turnover margin at minus-4 thanks to poor ball security on offense and only eight takeaways on defense. A year ago, Allen’s club ranked tied for eighth in the country in turnover margin at plus-8 on the strength of 17 interceptions, which was best among Power 5 schools. “I think that’s really kind of the difference, to be honest with you,” Allen said. “I mean, we gave up yards last year. And we gave up drives last year. And people forget that because we got a lot of takeaways, and those erase a lot of stuff. ... Very frustrating for our defense just to be able to not get those. We did drop one. We got some pressure but not enough pressure. To me, that’s just the reality of what we’ve got to be able to go back to the drawing board and do a better job of. ... We’ve got to find a way to give our offense a chance to have some momentum and play downhill instead of just having to drive 75 or 80 yards every time.

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13. Send questions for his next U-M mailbag.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football likely facing true freshman QB vs. Indiana