Wojo: UM will have to lean on its defense now more than ever

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
John O'Korn

Ann Arbor — With a thump and a crunching thud, Michigan’s record and quarterback situation dramatically changed. Its veneer got dented and its path got tougher.

But nothing else has to change, really. The Wolverines built their identity on defense and power, and that’s what they’ll have to lean on, now more than ever. Wilton Speight’s shoulder injury complicates things, no doubt. John O’Korn might be a fine backup but he’ll have to show it in a quick turnaround, at home against Indiana Saturday and then in a brutal environment at Ohio State.

Jim Harbaugh wasn’t expansive on the left shoulder injury that will sideline Speight for a while, but if there’s a crisis brewing, there’s no outward hint of it. Harbaugh talked openly about O’Korn and third-stringer Shane Morris and said both would take a lot of snaps while Speight sits out.

“(O’Korn and Morris) looked sharp,” Harbaugh said on his radio show Monday night. “It was one of the best Monday practices we’ve had. … The report that (Speight) is out for the season, I have not heard that from the doctors, that’s incorrect. We’ll see how he feels. It may be something that takes it all the way to game time.”

For now, the focus is on getting the next guys ready. Harbaugh built his reputation as a quarterback-shaper and it’s about to be tested again, urgently. Speight already was being transformed into a big-play passer, a tremendous advantage for any offense, although that’s not how the Wolverines expected to win this season. When Speight went down in the 14-13 loss to Iowa, all margins for error shrunk.

Michigan can’t afford another loss if it’s to win any kind of championship. And it can’t rely on a 6-foot-6 quarterback who was blossoming, right up until the Hawkeyes hit hard. For the first time this season the Wolverines fell, although they still control all their Big Ten and playoff possibilities.

Line dancing

If this was a quarterback-centric team, Michigan (9-1) would be in trouble. If O’Korn was some unknown with no experience — instead of nearly two seasons as a starter at Houston — Michigan would be in big trouble.

But the Wolverines title hopes are right back where they began — in the trenches. And that might be a larger issue than the quarterback situation. In the past few games, holes have opened on their touted defensive front. The offensive line hasn’t pushed as hard, and got pushed around by the Hawkeyes, who allowed only 201 total yards.

Wolverines: O’Korn will be OK if Speight can’t play

We’ll spend a lot of time dissecting O’Korn’s strengths and weaknesses — good runner, strong arm, solid leader, risk-taker prone to mistakes. But the more-telling focus will be on the lines, which have to be better. Were all those gaudy offensive and defensive numbers a sign of depth and talent, or a byproduct of a home-heavy schedule? Or some combination thereof?

Against two legitimate road opponents, Iowa and Michigan State, Michigan struggled to stop the run. The Hawkeyes rushed for 164 yards and the Spartans for 217. Speight could bail the team out with deep throws to Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson — although his accuracy was off in Iowa City — but those impact plays are less likely now.

It’ll be different and more difficult, but it doesn’t have to be a season-changer. There was a determined calm about the Wolverines Monday, as they rubbed the sting of defeat but conceded nothing.

“We didn’t win the game, but we’re not hitting the panic button and trying to shuffle a bunch of things around,” tight end Jake Butt said. “O’Korn and Wilton are pretty similar quarterbacks and we’re going to be running the same exact plays. John has been doing a great job understanding his role and he’s been ready every single week. If his number is called, I’m confident and everyone’s confident he’ll be able to get this job done.”

O’Korn has looked solid in mop-up duty — 13-for-18, two touchdowns — and was considered the favorite to start until Speight wrested control in the spring and never let go. O’Korn will need more backing, and you can bet Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Tim Drevno will experiment. Should freshman running back Chris Evans get more than eight carries in game? Probably. Does the offensive line need to turn cohesiveness into dominance? That would help, and we haven’t seen it consistently.

The Peppers option

And of course, the persistent question: Could Jabrill Peppers get more time as a read-option quarterback? It’s something the Wolverines probably will mull.

“We tried several ways to crack open the defense, to make plays, to get first downs, to score points,” Harbaugh said. “Jabrill had a couple real nice plays, but as a team we weren’t able to manufacture enough yards on offense. Looking back, I don’t have an opinion whether we used (Peppers) too much or not enough.”

Harbaugh tells UM players to ‘soldier up,’ win next game

Compensating for a late quarterback injury isn’t impossible. In fact, we’ve seen it fairly regularly around here. Two years ago, Ohio State lost J.T. Barrett and installed one-time third-stringer Cardale Jones, who merely led the Buckeyes to the national championship.

And of course, Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry stepped in for ailing Connor Cook and led Michigan State to a stunning 17-14 victory in Columbus last season, on its way to the playoffs. It’s not ideal, but a major blast of adversity seemed to steel those teams and reveal their deeper identities. How deep are the Wolverines, in talent and resolve? They pledged to be tougher and stronger now, and they really have no choice.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @bobwojnowski