Wojo: Michigan’s QB quandary adds drama to showdown

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan quarterback John O'Korn had a rough outing in his first start.

Ann Arbor — Both teams have starry stats, 10-1 records and championship intentions. Each has mostly rolled, but recently slowed. The colossal collision in Columbus is five days away, and everyone’s ready for a colossal conclusion.

The question is: Will Michigan’s quarterbacks be ready?

It’s the overriding issue heading into Saturday’s showdown, and a main reason Ohio State is a 6.5-point favorite. Well, there also are the little issues of Urban Meyer and J.T. Barrett and the Buckeyes’ streak of 11 victories in 12 meetings.

But in Michigan’s tougher-than-expected 20-10 victory over Indiana, John O’Korn looked like a guy making his first start in two years, while Wilton Speight watched from the sideline with an injured left (non-throwing) shoulder. Afterward, Jim Harbaugh confirmed the possibility of Speight playing this week, calling his status “day to day.” Speight loosened up briefly before the game, and you have to believe, if he’s close to ready, he’ll play against the Buckeyes.

The Wolverines either have to hope Speight returns, or hope O’Korn’s misfires were a function of extenuating circumstances. Maybe any quarterback would’ve struggled in the wintry conditions, with temperatures in the 20s and winds gusting to 30 miles per hour, but O’Korn’s difficulties were troubling.

Harbaugh strongly defended him and seemed genuinely appreciative of a grind-it-out victory 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.

Tale of the tape: Michigan vs. Ohio State

“It was tough conditions to operate in, especially in the passing game,” Harbaugh said. “I thought (O’Korn) did extremely well. Ball security was fantastic all day. He managed the team and did what he needed to do.”

O’Korn didn’t turn the ball over, and in fact neither team did, which was amazing considering the weather. But Michigan finished with only 284 yards against one of the Big Ten’s weakest defenses, an abysmal 3-for-15 on 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.

He wasn’t decisive in his throws, although he didn’t get great protection early on. He was 7-for-16 passing 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 — on this day, in these conditions.

‘We’ll both be ready’

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 stack the line like the Hoosiers did and take its chances against De’Veon Smith.

O’Korn said he wasn’t pleased with the way he threw, but would be ready if needed in Columbus.

“I’m gonna prepare like I’m the starter, and I hope Wilton prepares like he’s the starter,” said O’Korn, who hadn’t started a game since 2014 with Houston. “If he’s ready to go, that’s coach’s decision and I’m supporting it 100 percent. Whatever coach decides, I know we’ll both be ready to go.”

If the Wolverines don’t get more from their passing offense, the task grows considerably tougher. Smith ran as if carrying more than his own weight, rumbling for 158 clutch yards against the Hoosiers. Ohio State’s run defense was gashed by Michigan State’s LJ Scott in the Buckeyes’ 17-16 victory, so there’s a bit of a blueprint.

Michigan’s defense is strong enough to keep it tight, unless it gets beat to the perimeter by Barrett, Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel. The defense has mostly been ready for anything, and everything still is possible.

“This one’s for all the marbles,” Jabrill Peppers said. “Everything we want is right in front of us.”

‘Come ready’

If Michigan wins, it advances to the Big Ten championship game and possibly a spot in the national playoff. If Ohio State wins, it still needs Penn State to lose to reach the Big Ten title game. So it’s not exactly winner-take-all, but it’s as close as it’s been in this rivalry since the 2006 One-versus-Two matchup.

Michigan quickly shifts focus to Ohio State

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, players took sliding dives into the snow-covered turf. It was a release of joy after a tiring 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 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.

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, and defenses are adjusting. But this 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, especially their quarterback.