Free Press sports writer Orion Sang reveals what he learned in Michigan football's 27-24 loss to Michigan State, and looks ahead to the Wolverines' next game at Indiana:
3 things we learned
Michigan was overrated: The Wolverines fell back to Earth on Saturday after raising expectations with their season-opening win at Minnesota. In a stunning loss to the Spartans, they looked nothing like the team that confidently beat the Gophers on the road last week. Instead, the offense lost all crispness and was inefficient, including on an 18-play, 93-yard touchdown drive at the end of the fourth quarter that was way too methodical. The defense was even worse, allowing big play after big play on downfield throws. There aren't really any positives Michigan can take from this game. It was thoroughly outplayed and outcoached. And it certainly didn't deserve the top-15 ranking it had entering the game.
Defense has serious issues: Ever since Don Brown took over as defensive coordinator in 2016, Michigan's defenses have been able to hang their hat on two things: Press-man coverage and getting after the quarterback. Against Michigan State, the defense did neither successfully — which is how Rocky Lombardi and Ricky White had the game of their lives, connecting for 198 yards. Michigan's secondary was so bad that Vincent Gray, the most experienced corner, was pulled in the second half for redshirt freshman Jalen Perry. But it wasn't all just on the cornerbacks. In order to play man coverage successfully, the front seven has to be able to get pressure. The Wolverines could not accomplish that one week after getting five sacks — and that didn't help the overmatched cornerbacks one bit.
Milton still developing: Michigan's first-year starting quarterback went from taking Algebra I against Minnesota to Calculus III against the Spartans. He faced an average distance of 8.9 yards on third down, threw into coverage, faced pressure on numerous downs, suffered from drops by his pass-catchers and had shaky pocket presence. It was a far cry from the cool, composed Milton that did his job capably in Week 1. But it was also a reminder that, entering Saturday, Milton had thrown just 36 career passes. He's still inexperienced, as is Michigan's offense.
Matchup: No. 25 Michigan (1-1) at No. 13 Indiana (2-0)
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Memorial Stadium, Bloomington, Indiana
TV/radio: FS1; WWJ-AM (950), WTKA-AM (1050).
Know the foe
The Hoosiers pulled off their biggest win in decades by upsetting then-No. 8 Penn State in the season opener. Indiana has had trouble finishing in big games — it nearly beat Michigan in 2015 and 2017 and played the Wolverines tough in 2016 and 2018 — but finally got over the hump at the Nittany Lions' expense. While Michigan easily dispatched Indiana last season on the road, 39-14, many of the faces that starred in that game no longer are in Ann Arbor. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who missed last season's game due to injury, has taken over and has big play ability (although he struggled mightily against Penn State's defense). Running back Stevie Scott runs hard and has a 1,000-yard season under his belt. Speedy receiver Whop Philyor, who had 1,002 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in 2019, is Penix's favorite target. The defense also has improved; the interior was stout against the Nittany Lions and disrupted runs and passing plays with penetration. Cornerback Tiawan Mullen was a sticky defender as a freshman last season and is one of the conference's top cornerbacks this season.
3 things to watch
How will Michigan respond? The Wolverines were at a loss for words after Saturday's loss. They are already at a turning point in their season — much like they were in 2019, after they were trounced by Wisconsin in their third contest. How will this team handle adversity? It just lost a game to one of its biggest rivals — a game everyone expected it to win — and played poorly in just about every phase. If Michigan loses Saturday, a sub-.500 season would become a very real possibility.
Injuries piling up: Not only did Michigan lose Saturday, but it suffered injuries to key contributors across the board. Defensive end Kwity Paye, the team's top pass-rusher, was dinged up and left the game for a period before returning. Right tackle Jalen Mayfield was hurt in the fourth quarter and, after initially walking off, had to be carted off into the locker room. Harbaugh later said that Mayfield's X-rays after the game were negative. Meanwhile, linebackers Cam McGrone and Michael Barrett both left the game due to injury and did not return. “Cam couldn’t finish the second half," Harbaugh said. "Wanted to, but doctors held him out the second half.”
All eyes on Milton: Michigan State loaded up the box, selling out to defend the run, and forced Michigan's quarterback to beat them by throwing downfield. The Wolverines made some plays, but their biggest gain was 26 yards, and their offense stalled out too often. The film is out there now, so expect Indiana and other teams to try to re-create the same magic — which makes sense, considering Milton's inexperience and the Wolverines no longer have Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones, who torched the Hoosiers' secondary in 2019.
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: In Michigan football's loss to MSU, we learned Wolverines overrated