If you look at Saturday’s highly-anticipated Michigan at Indiana game on paper, it would be reasonable to expect a shootout. The two teams both average 36.5 points per game two weeks in, good for 21st and 22nd nationally.
And it’s true, the two teams are loaded with offensive weapons. From an intriguing quarterback matchup with Michael Penix Jr. vs. Joe Milton to a running back room in Ann Arbor that is equally as deep as the pass-catchers in Bloomington, it is reasonable to expect fireworks at Noon on Saturday.
But despite the likelihood of a high-scoring affair (over/under of 54.5), the game’s winner will be the team that emerges victorious from the trenches.
For Indiana, this is especially important. Though Indiana’s offensive line has only allowed four total sacks through two games, it has been the biggest position group holding this offense back. Penix Jr. has consistently faced pressure, particularly early in both games, and as a result, the offense has started slow.
“It all starts up front,” Indiana tight end Peyton Hendershot said earlier in the week. “If we can do our job blocking their defensive ends, their defensive tackles well, I think everything will fall into place.”
Both Penn State and Rutgers have solid defensive lines from a pass rush point of view. Neither compare to the pass rush duo of Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson for the Wolverines. Paye in particular has stood out, racking up two sacks, eight hurries, and a whopping 16 pressures through two games.
In order for Penix Jr. to get the ball to his abundance of weapons, offensive tackles Matthew Bedford and Caleb Jones will have to hold up in a way they did not against Penn State. But beyond pass protection, the Hoosiers will also need to establish the run.
The Hoosiers have run the ball 66 times for 150 yards, good for just 2.9 yards per carry. They survived against Penn State because the Nittany Lions couldn’t get out of their own way. They roughed up a Rutgers team that was no match talent-wise through the air. Against an angry Michigan team though, the lack of rushing production won’t fly.
On the other side of the ball, a similar dynamic exists. The Indiana defensive line has played extremely well thus far, limiting big plays in the run game and getting pressure in big spots. However, they haven’t faced a combination of running backs and offensive linemen like Michigan.
Likely future NFL tackle Jalen Mayfield leads the Michigan group up front that has paved the way for over 400 rushing yards through two games. Michigan also features an explosive committee of running backs, from Hasaan Haskins to Zach Charbonnet to the quarterback Milton. All three are averaging over 5.5 yards per carry.
Indiana recognizes it will have to be sound with its front six if it wants to slow down the Wolverine ground attack.
“They have a good running game,” linebacker Micah McFadden said. “A lot of guard pulls, getting the perimeter game going. We have to have good edges to our defense.”
It will be a tall task, but it is an essential one for an Indiana defense that has an advantage in its defensive backfield. The IU secondary has already proven its worth against receiving corps that have more talent than this Wolverine group (see Pat Friermuth and Jahan Dotson). If the front six can step up and limit the run game for Michigan, the Hoosiers will be in great position.
The fireworks will inevitably fly Saturday in Bloomington as they almost always seem to in the modern game, but if both lines don’t come to play, Indiana will make it 25 straight losses to the Michigan Wolverines.
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