ANN ARBOR, MICH. - Michigan was on the tightrope.
Midway through the third quarter, in front of a depressed and freezing crowd today, the Wolverines’ dreams were on pause, teetering toward disaster.
There was no offense and trailing by two points despite solid defense, it was looking awfully familiar.
A week earlier at Iowa, it went down the same way, a painfully close defeat.
But Michigan found some juice this time.
On Senior Day, De’Veon Smith made his final home game memorable, ripping off two third-quarter touchdown runs to give U-M a cushion.
That was enough for the defense to finish off the Hoosiers in Michigan’s 20-10 win at Michigan Stadium in front of 110,288.
The win kept everything on the table: next week’s Big Ten East Division title chance at Ohio State, potentially a Big Ten title game in Indianapolis Dec. 3 and, if that all works out, the College Football Playoff.
On a night where the backup quarterback, John O’Korn, struggled through the air, Michigan (10-1, 7-1 Big Ten) found another way.
O’Korn was subbing for the injured Wilton Speight and managed only 59 passing yards, overthrowing one long bomb and watching a few potential conversions fall off his receivers’ hands.
But a week after the running game vanished with a season-low 98 yards at Iowa, Smith took out the paddles and revived it himself.
Rushing for a career-high 158 yards on 23 carries and the two touchdowns, Smith reminded why there’s more faith in him than any other back.
Michigan’s offense needed something to spark it and with 4 1/2 minutes to play in the third quarter, looking at third-and-8, it looked bleak.
O’Korn was wrapped up in the backfield. But somehow he escaped and ran to the left side for 30 yards. Then with the ball on Indiana’s 34-yard line, Smith found a crease and busted it 34 yards, diving and reaching over the pylon for the touchdown, giving Michigan a 12-10 lead.
It was still tenuous two series later. After O’Korn just overthrew an end zone shot, Smith took over again, racing the other way to the right side, deftly dancing the sideline for touchdown No. 2 and the 20-10 lead.
In 3 1/2 minutes, three runs took Michigan from a team on a brink of a ruined season, to one in control, keeping hope alive for a Big Ten title with the showdown game next week in Columbus.
Indiana fell to 5-6 (3-5) as U-M's defense closed out the game, finishing with three sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
Before that, the Wolverines could only settle for field goals, with two drives stalling in the red zone.
Not that the second half was offensive magic – aside from being played in a swirling snow globe – but Michigan showed progress.
After failing on all seven third-down conversions in the first half, they converted three of their next six. And with Smith’s cushion that was all they needed.
As the game wound down in the winter wonderland, a snow globe swirling around the Big House.
The chants began to ring out, still audible through the falling snow.
Michigan players diving in the snow postgame pic.twitter.com/apXHe1CRbk— Mark Snyder (@Mark__Snyder) November 19, 2016
Smith will take his teammates into his home state, looking for another memory.
“Beat Ohio” was all they were saying and, with the win in their pocket, all they were thinking.
Michigan may be without its starting quarterback again next week. It will likely be an underdog for the first time all season.
But Saturday showed the Wolverines have options and with 225 rushing yards, were able to make hay when necessary.
Detroit Free Press