In a season that provided plenty of what-ifs, no memory is as bitter for IU fans as the close loss at Michigan in last year's Big Ten opener. For the last couple of years, Michigan hasn't been "Michigan," but IU led in the fourth quarter and seemed poised to win at the Big House for the first time since 1967. Had IU won, the 85-yard touchdown run by Darius Willis in the fourth quarter could have been an all-time memorable moment for IU, even if the Wolverines had gone 0-8 in the conference. Instead, it's fun to watch but ultimately sad to realize that it didn't mean anything. And no, I don't have much to say about the simultaneous possession issue on the final meaningful play of the game. I do think it was the wrong call, but it happened with two minutes remaining, IU down by three, and 70 yards for the endzone. Although the Hoosiers moved the ball very well all day, they struggled in the red zone. Again, bad call, but I don't think it decided the game. IU badly outgained Michigan that day and could have put the game out of reach but for the (characteristic) red zone struggles.
The 2010 Wolverines will be seeking to recover from Michigan's two worst seasons in decades. After going 3-9/2-6 in Rich Rodriguez's first year as head coach, the Wolverines improved to 5-7, but declined to 1-7 in the conference. The IU game was Michigan's only Big Ten win, and last win of the season over an FBS team. At this time last year, Michigan fans were rolling their eyes at "hot seat" talk, but I would have to presume that another losing season might cost Rodriguez his job. I'm really stunned that Michigan has been so bad under Rodriguez. West Virginia was struggling when Rodriguez became its coach in 2001, but he turned that program around and in his final season in Morgantown very nearly led his alma mater to the BCS championship game. It's hard to believe that just three years later, he could find himself unemployed and a pariah in his home state. I still think he's a good coach, but I wonder if it's too late for him to win at Michigan.
Last year, Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson shared time and quarterback, and both return. Robinson was almost exclusively a runner, and completed only 14 of 31 pass attempts. Forcier had his moments, particularly in Michigan's win over Notre Dame and in an overtime loss to Michigan State. At running back, this Maize n Brew post details just how unsettled that segment of the Michigan backfield is. Virtually every player who carried the ball much last year is either gone, was injured, or is a quarterback. The U-M wide receiving corps is similarly unusual. Last year, Michigan had nine receivers who gained at least 100 yards but no one who gained 500 yards. Sophomore Roy Roundtree caught his first reception against IU, a 35 yard gain, and played well in the second half, breaking the 100 yard barrier against Purdue and Ohio State. He averaged 13.6 yards per catch. Defensively, the Wolverines struggled, allowing nearly 400 yards per game. They did punt well, but Zoltan Mesko is finally gone.
I don't know what to make of this game or this team. Before last season, I thought Michigan would be a middle-of-the-pack team, a team that IU wouldn't be favored to beat but the sort of team that IU could beat if IU were bowl-worthy. That's about how I feel this year. I get the sense that the coaches and the athletic department are going to make this game a priority. Historically, that doesn't bode well for the Hoosiers. Still, given U-M's struggles this looks like IU's best chance since the 1980s to send Michigan home from Bloomington with a loss.