Wojo: Harbaugh can’t get caught short at quarterback again

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan quarterback John O'Korn fumbles the ball in the second quarter.

Ann Arbor — The plays were there, the opportunity was there and Ohio State looked ripe to be picked. But that’s not how this rivalry works — in the end, Michigan always gets picked.

It has to be especially galling for Jim Harbaugh that his favorite position cost him again at the most-crucial time in the biggest game. John O’Korn played because Michigan’s top two quarterbacks were injured, and he repeatedly missed basic throws with the game in the balance. He tearfully took a big chunk of responsibility for Michigan’s 31-20 loss to Ohio State Saturday as he broke down in the post-game news conference.

It was painful to watch, just as it was painful for the Wolverines to suffer another mistake-laden defeat — No. 13 in the past 14 meetings — while knowing they had ample opportunity to win. It was a brutally physical game, and the Wolverines (8-4) again showed they can slug with the Buckeyes (10-2). But they’re now 0-6 against Urban Meyer, always ending up a few plays short, and in this case, a key player short.

In the narrow view, this game was decided by the quarterbacks, as O’Korn kept misfiring, including a horrible interception directly to safety Jordan Fuller with 2:36 left and Ohio State ahead 24-20. Meanwhile, Buckeyes backup Dwayne Haskins, a redshirt freshman, came in and played very well.

In the long view, this can’t happen again — Harbaugh cannot get caught this short at the most-important position. Some of it is simple football misfortune. Brandon Peters wasn’t cleared after suffering a concussion last week and Wilton Speight hasn’t fully recovered from three fractured vertebrae in his neck. But Harbaugh is supposed to have a knack with quarterbacks, and we didn’t see it this season as Michigan lost to every tough team on its schedule.

Promising start

It says something encouraging that the Wolverines still came out emotionally lit and solidly prepared, and grabbed a 14-0 lead. They bludgeoned the Buckeyes in the first quarter with a yardage advantage of 105 to minus-6. The offense was working, Chris Evans and Karan Higdon were running hard and the receivers and tight ends were getting open. But when the Buckeyes recovered and clutch plays had to be made, Michigan missed on them, and it wasn’t just O’Korn.

It also was the defense getting dinged by J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber, as well as by Haskins on third downs again and again. It was Quinn Nordin getting an extra point blocked. It was safety Josh Metellus dropping an interception near the goal line, and J.T. Barrett scoring from 21 yards on the next play to make it 14-7.

“They made plays, we made plays,” Harbaugh said. “We had a few mistakes offensively, a few mistakes defensively. We had a few more than they did.”

O’Korn made the critical ones, and that’s the nature of the position. The disappointment is, he’s a fifth-year senior, and the Houston transfer was one of Harbaugh’s first acquisitions. After three years in the program, O’Korn still looks uncomfortable and struggles to read defenses. That’s on him but it’s also on Harbaugh, who’s 1-5 against Ohio State and Michigan State.

The rivalry record is a concern, certainly. But to be fair, this game was not lost by poor game-planning or lack of preparation. It was lost because the Buckeyes had a better option when Barrett left after apparently suffering a knee injury on the sideline before the game, then trying to play through it.

“I think the hardest part for me is, you come here to win this game, and our senior class wasn’t able to do it,” O’Korn said, his voice breaking as the tears fell. “I hold myself responsible for a lot of that. It sucks. I can’t imagine a worse feeling right now.”

Sympathy is a fair emotion for a guy who likely played his final college football game (assuming Peters returns for the bowl). But aggravation is appropriate too.

Harbaugh didn’t rip his quarterback afterward, but didn’t go out of his way to defend him. Nor should he, because a senior is past being coddled. Besides the interception, O’Korn also bobbled a couple snaps, sailed several throws, and held the ball too long at times, taking five sacks.

“I know we missed a few,” Harbaugh said. “Commenting on the degree of difficulty, there was some wind. (But) gotta hit ’em.”

O’Korn takes the rap

The real crusher came with 6:58 left in the game and Michigan trailing 24-20, facing a fourth-and-4 at Ohio State’s 39. Harbaugh made the aggressive call to go for it and the play was well-designed. But O’Korn couldn’t execute it, badly overthrowing a wide-open Evans.

On the next possession, O’Korn misread the coverage and threw his only interception. He finished 17-for-32 for 195 yards, and again didn’t dodge the blame.

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"It was an option route and (the receiver) did the right thing and it was all on me," O'Korn said. "You just see it wrong, and as soon as the ball was in the air you wish you could have it back. You know what the result is going to be and you can't change it."

Sounds like the rivalry now, and it won’t be easy for Michigan to change it. Harbaugh will have Peters and redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey at quarterback next season (Speight also has a year of eligibility remaining), and is bringing in a touted recruit from Orlando, Joe Milton. More youth, more unknowns.

Somehow, Meyer just keeps reloading, and Haskins looks legitimate. This isn’t Meyer’s best team, yet he’s still heading to face Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game, with an outside shot at the playoff.

The Buckeyes were battered in their two losses, and looked primed for it to happen again after Michigan’s dominant first quarter. But then they made all sorts of big plays — Haskins was six-for-seven for 94 yards — and the Wolverines didn’t. It may not have been as wrenching as last year’s double-overtime loss, but as stages of anguish go, they share a common theme. Michigan had a chance, and tossed it away.