Ann Arbor — De’Veon Smith looks ready, running as if he’s carrying more than his own weight. Jim Harbaugh is ready, his weekly championship mantra now focused on the colossal collision in Columbus. Michigan’s defense has mostly been ready for anything, and as the snow swirled madly in Michigan Stadium Saturday, anything seemed possible.
Anything still is possible for the Wolverines, as long as they can answer this question: Will their quarterback be ready?
This was a tougher-than-expected test, partly because of the elements and partly because John O’Korn looked like a guy making his first start in two years. The Wolverines slipped past the Hoosiers 20-10 thanks mostly to Smith, who rumbled for 158 yards and two long touchdowns. Now the showdown looms — 10-1 Michigan versus 10-1 Ohio State — for two possible prizes, a Big Ten championship game appearance and a playoff spot.
Harbaugh seemed genuinely appreciative of a grind-it-out victory in tough conditions against a decent opponent. And he should be. But what he wouldn’t say, he has to know — the Wolverines will need stronger quarterback play to beat the Buckeyes.
Harbaugh confirmed the possibility of Wilton Speight being ready next week, after he sat out with an injured left (non-throwing) shoulder. He labeled Speight’s status the standard “day to day” and gave no further indication of any change. Speight loosened up briefly before the game, and you have to believe, if he’s close to ready, he’ll play against the Buckeyes.
This wasn’t pretty, as the Wolverines trailed the Hoosiers 7-3 at halftime while piling up a meager 110 yards. Maybe any quarterback would’ve struggled in these conditions, with wind-chills in the 20s and winds gusting to 30 mph. But O’Korn’s difficulties were troubling.
He wasn’t decisive in his throws, although he didn’t get great protection early on. He completed seven of 16 passes for 59 yards and was sacked twice, although he did make the biggest play of the game, a 30-yard scramble that finally got the offense moving late in the third quarter. For Harbaugh, that was enough — at least on this day, in these conditions.
“It was tough conditions to operate in, especially in the passing game,” Harbaugh said. “I thought he did extremely well. Ball security was fantastic all day. He managed the team and did what he needed to do. … It’s a great feeling when you win a football game, two opposing wills, and you have to beat the other team and also the elements.”
O’Korn didn’t turn the ball over, and in fact, neither team had a turnover, which was amazing considering the weather. There was something picturesque and punishing about the snowy scene, “old-fashioned slobber-knocker football,” as Harbaugh happily called it.
But Michigan finished with only 284 yards against one of the Big Ten’s weaker defenses, and was an abysmal 3-for-15 in third-down conversions. That’s two straight weeks the offense has wobbled, including the 14-13 loss at Iowa. Speight struggled in that one before getting injured, and the theory was, O’Korn’s mobility might provide a spark.
There was one 30-yard spark and not much else. Harbaugh has adamantly stated Speight isn’t ruled out for the season, and that’s more vital news than first imagined. Because if O’Korn isn’t effective throwing downfield, a defense will simply stack the line like the Hoosiers did and take its chances against Smith.
“I was not real pleased with the way I threw the ball, that’s part of battling the elements,” said O’Korn, who hadn’t started a game since 2014 with Houston. “You gotta complete passes when opportunities present themselves. One stands out, a deep throw to Amara (Darboh) in the third quarter. Luckily our run game and the o-line had my back today.”
The offensive line gathered itself after a sluggish start, when the Hoosiers threatened to turn the quarterback into creamed O’Korn. Against the Buckeyes and J.T. Barrett, sluggish starts and missed throws could be disastrous.
Of course, it didn’t take long for the Wolverines to shift their focus to The Game. This was the final home frolic for the seniors, and afterward, several players took sliding dives into the snow-covered turf. It was a release of joy after a tiring, tedious effort, but by the time players spoke with the media, the steely eyes were affixed.
Now that it’s here, what’s your first thought on Ohio State week?
From Smith: “Everybody better come ready for practice on Tuesday.”
From Jabrill Peppers: “Ditto.”
There were no bold predictions, no boasts, no bluster. When you’ve lost 11 of 12 to your rival and fell 42-13 last year, there’s not much to say, just plenty to do.
“Now that it’s finally here, we can zero in on it and put all our focus toward it,” Peppers said. “This one’s for all the marbles. Everything we want is right in front of us.”
Peppers didn’t play much of a role on offense against the Hoosiers, rushing twice for 2 yards. The elements of surprise and deception seem to have dissipated over the course of the season, and defenses are adjusting. But next week, all trends are moot, and all options are available.
Perhaps Peppers will take a few more snaps to energize the offense. Perhaps Speight will be healthy enough to give it a go. Something will be needed, because asking Smith to plow through the Buckeyes is asking too much. The Wolverines will need more from everybody, and that includes their quarterback.