(AP) – Michigan was clinging to what seemed like a slim chance to win the Big Ten title just a few days ago.
That notion suddenly seems much more realistic.
The Wolverines got some of the help they needed last Saturday night when Nebraska beat Michigan State on a disputed call. Now, the 15th-ranked Wolverines (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) have to win three more games and hope Ohio State – or another team – hands the Spartans another setback.
If that scenario plays out, Michigan will earn a spot in the Big Ten championship game for the first time.
”I’m sure they’re aware of that,” coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. ”If not, we’ll make them aware.”
It sounds as if Harbaugh’s players are well aware of what needs to happen for them to end the school’s 11-year conference title drought. The Wolverines are refusing, so far, to say they will be pulling for the rival Buckeyes to beat the rival Spartans next week.
”Rooting for Ohio State? I don’t know that we could go that far with it,” defensive lineman Taco Charlton said.
Linebacker Joe Bolden and Charlton were quick to say they’re more focused on beating Indiana (5-5, 0-5) this Saturday on the road than allowing Big Ten championship scenarios to occupy too much of their time.
”We’re worried about Indiana,” Bolden insisted.
Michigan fans’ worries about quarterback Jake Rudock have faded and they will probably find it easier to support him the rest of the season because Harbaugh is now raving about him. Harbaugh chose to start Rudock over Shane Morris and stuck by him even when the graduate transfer from Iowa was struggling with turnovers.
The former Michigan and NFL quarterback has had his faith in Rudock rewarded because he is coming off perhaps the best game of his career. Rudock was 18 of 25 for a career-high 337 yards with two touchdowns and ran for a 4-yard touchdown along with a 2-point conversion in the 49-16 win over Rutgers.
”He looked like an NFL-type quarterback, someone that had a future playing in that league,” Harbaugh said. ”The way he is now playing and operating, I see that jump that he has made.”
The Hoosiers, meanwhile, are again seeking the breakthrough victory over a ranked team that has eluded them all season. Indiana has played three top-10 teams in the past six weeks and went into the fourth quarter with a chance to win all three. But after losses in those three games, and five in a row overall, the frustrated Hoosiers want to be more than competitive.
Offensive coordinator Kevin Johns said Monday it’s not enough for this program to simply be competitive anymore. He said Indiana needs to find a way win a close game.
"We need to do it this week and it’s critical," Johns said. "Our guys are working hard out there but you’ve heard that. Our guys are playing at a high level and I know that you’ve heard that, too. We’re just not doing it consistently throughout the entire game. That’s what it is coming down to."
Indiana lost to No. 1 Ohio State 34-27 on Oct. 3, to No. 7 Michigan State 52-26 on Oct. 24 and to No. 10 Iowa last week, 35-27. This is the first time since 1979 that Indiana has played at least three top 15 teams in a single season and the fourth comes this week.
"This is a game against another great opponent that if we play well we’ll have a chance for a strong outcome," said Indiana coach Kevin Wilson. "But Michigan is playing very, very good football. We’re going to need all three phases to contribute against a really good football team as we finish the home slate with three to go."
The Wolverines have won 19 straight over Indiana since a 14-10 loss at Bloomington in 1987, and limited the Hoosiers to 191 total yards in last year’s 34-10 home victory.
Michigan has contributed three losses to Indiana’s 23-game skid to ranked Big Ten rivals since a 31-28 win over then-No. 15 Iowa on Oct. 14, 2006.