For weeks, it’s been clear that the Big Ten East—and probably the conference’s playoff hopes—would come down to next Saturday’s game between No. 10 Ohio State and No. 4 Michigan. The winner will take the division and head to Indianapolis for the conference’s title game, and it’s easy to see how the minor detail of a Week 12 game might get lost in the shuffle.
On Saturday, both teams played as if they were looking a week into the future. Both were behind at halftime. It took overtime and a missed two-point conversion by Maryland for Ohio State to pull off a win, and Michigan’s defense stepped up in the second half to pull ahead of Indiana.
In the game’s first half, Michigan’s offense scored often, but on a series of three straight field goals, was never quite able to cross the goal line. That allowed Indiana into the game, and though the final score, 31–20, might not be jarring, it obscures the fact that this was the Michigan defense’s worst game of the year. The 385 yards it allowed the Hoosiers was more than it allowed any team this year, even Notre Dame in Week 1; that night, the Irish had 302 yards in a 24–17 win.
Still, the Wolverines looked like their elite selves in the second half, when Indiana mustered just one yard on its first drive, then 32 yards and a fumble on its second. Michigan’s offense couldn’t use that turnover to its advantage, as Shea Patterson threw an interception on his first pass after getting the ball back. That was one of the quarterback’s few mistakes on Saturday, though. Michigan had 507 yards of total offense, including 250 yards passing for Patterson. The Wolverines also beat up Indiana on the ground, finishing with 257 yards, 101 of which came from Karan Higdon, who had the lone rushing touchdown of the afternoon.
It didn’t take quite as much drama for Michigan to get its 10th win as it did Ohio State, which benefited from an aggressive play call by Maryland interim coach Matt Canada. Still, Indiana exposed weaknesses in Michigan’s offense, which struggled to get into the end zone throughout. The Wolverines failed to score a touchdown once they were inside the 15-yard line six times on Saturday. In the end, a succession of field goals were enough—but that won’t always be the case, and the College Football Playoff committee is watching. (The Wolverines also had bad injury luck Saturday: defensive lineman Chase Winovich suffered an upper-body injury on a late hit in the third quarter, and running back Berkley Edwards was carted off in the fourth quarter after a helmet-to-helmet blow.)
Michigan did make a statement at the end. Up by 11, Indiana got the ball back with 2:37 to go, and the Hoosiers were able to log a first down. A touchdown would have given them an opening, but Michigan defensive tackle Rashan Gary sacked quarterback Peyton Ramsey for a six-yard loss, effectively ending the game. Indiana would turn the ball over on downs on the next play, and Michigan kept its playoff dreams alive.
If either of the Big Ten’s contenders had lost in Week 12, it would have likely doomed its playoff chances, no matter what might happen next Saturday. There are just too many top-10 teams with legitimate playoff cases that aren’t going to slip up to .500 or sub-.500 teams in November, and the Big Ten title game against four-loss Northwestern isn’t going to do either team any favors, no matter how big the blowout.