Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh talks about his starting quarterback, John O'Korn. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — There’s no hiding or denying now. Michigan’s strengths have been revealed, almost all on defense, and so have its weaknesses, almost all on offense.
With their top-ranked defense, the Wolverines have a shot against almost anyone. But without more production at quarterback, it’s a slim shot against an opponent like No. 2 Penn State Saturday night on the road. And at least one important person seems to agree with that — the quarterback himself, John O’Korn.
“I need to pick it up, there’s no way around it,” O’Korn said Monday. “Hit the guys that are open. Run when I need to. Trust the offensive line. There were a few plays Saturday we had guys open, just need to hit ’em.”
It can’t be this laborious, not if the Wolverines (5-1) hope to accomplish anything significant this season. O’Korn isn’t hiding from responsibility, to his credit, and neither should Jim Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Tim Drevno and passing-game coordinator Pep Hamilton. But there’s no easy formula here, not as long as Wilton Speight is out and redshirt freshman Brandon Peters apparently isn’t ready.
In the overtime victory at Indiana, the Wolverines corrected a few major problems. They committed no turnovers and surrendered no sacks, after giving the ball away five times in the loss to Michigan State. But they committed 16 penalties, and there’s no way that can happen again. Truly, no way.
They beat the Hoosiers with a basic formula — run the ball, play it safe, make ’em punt. Against most opponents, I’d say that’s exactly how Michigan should approach it. But as a double-digit underdog, they’re unlikely to beat Penn State and its terrific quarterback-running back combo of Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley that way. You can’t beat any opponent of note with 58 yards passing, and the Wolverines barely hung on against the Hoosiers, thanks to a break-out 200-yard effort by Karan Higdon.
“(O’Korn) played extremely well, no turnovers, 100 percent in the red zone, no sacks, avoided plays that get you beat,” Harbaugh said. “That was an emphasis and I thought he did a fine job of it.”
Big test for Harbaugh
Harbaugh has no choice but to pump up O’Korn, who was impressive stepping in at Purdue — 18-for-26 for 270 yards. Somewhere between the extremes of the Purdue win and the Michigan State loss, there lies a fair measure of O’Korn and the offense, and the Wolverines are hunting for it.
This is the biggest test of Harbaugh’s tenure here, because he’s been caught short at his pet position. Raise your hand if you thought Michigan would be working on its third quarterback in less than three seasons. The defense is the unit that lost 10 starters, and yet it’s again punishing, maybe more dominant than last season. It would be a waste to waste it, which cranks up the heat on the offense, which creates a dilemma for Harbaugh.
Does he keep taking his chances with a severely dialed-down attack, playing for field position? Or does he take real chances by giving O’Korn the confidence to take a few more chances?
O’Korn plays as if unsure of himself, and admits it’s a mentality he has to break. As a freshman at Houston in 2013, he threw for 3,117 yards and 28 touchdowns (No. 1 in the nation for freshmen). In the last three games this season, he’s completed 54.3 percent of his passes for 526 yards with four interceptions and one touchdown.
It’ll be even tougher at Penn State, where the White-Out noise and the Nittany Lions defense (No. 9 in the country) present new problems. O’Korn has a tendency to lock on his first option, and his accuracy has been way off. Harbaugh dislikes the term “game-manager” for a quarterback but that’s the phrase O’Korn used Monday. No sense playing with semantics, and no denying O’Korn is wrestling with the reality of it.
Michigan quarterback John O'Korn talks about executing the offense. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
"I wouldn’t say it’s a difficult transition, but it’s absolutely a transition,” O’Korn said. “I’ve had to adapt to the offense, and it’s something I’ve been working on. Completely different style of offense, completely different style of play.”
Hamilton is in his first season here, and that has caused some adjustments. But O’Korn said the communication has been good, and he called Hamilton “probably the most consistent person in our building.”
Steady and heady — two traits that usually serve a quarterback well. In road victories against Purdue and Indiana, O’Korn showed he’s capable of that. Against MSU in bad weather, he made huge mistakes when pressed. As a fifth-year senior, you’d think his real identity would have been revealed by now, and maybe it has.
But he has to believe there’s more, and the Wolverines don’t have a choice but to believe there’s more. Michigan’s play-calling could use a boost of creativity, and if an improved running attack opens up the play-action pass and screen game, O’Korn has to connect.
“I’ve done it my whole life,” O’Korn said. “It’s just a matter of repping the plays and hitting guys when they’re open. Simple as that.”
He was especially annoyed with himself for missing Donovan Peoples-Jones on a deep route early against the Hoosiers. After that, the Wolverines kept handing the ball to Higdon and kept inviting Indiana’s punter to return to the field. They’ve forced a nation-leading 47 three-and-outs, and Don Brown’s unit has play-makers all over the place, from Maurice Hurst to Rashan Gary to Devin Bush to Chase Winovich.
The Wolverines know how to get the ball back. They’ve shown, at times, the ability to hang onto it and run with it. The offense functions this way by necessity, not by preferred design. If O’Korn is capable of doing more, this is pretty much when he has to show it.