Welcome to the Reaction Roundtable, a new feature we are debuting at Maize n Brew. Each Sunday this football season, three of our staff members, Kevin Bunkley, Drew Hallett, and Josh LaFond, will share their instant thoughts, analysis, musings, and (attempted) humor on Michigan’s’ performance the previous day.
It will be a free-flowing conversation, like the one you had with your best friend on the couch or the buffoon at the bar yesterday, with no form, rhyme, or reason. Due to scheduling conflicts, today’s roundtable won’t be a free-flowing conversation. And, by the end, we will wrap up what you need to know before the next game week.
No. 8 Michigan was a trendy pick to be upset by Purdue this past week, but the Wolverines walked out of West Lafayette with a 28-10 victory. After an uneven first two quarters, Michigan flipped a switch and won this game handedly. What changed for Michigan in the second half? What was your takeaway from U-M’s second-half effort?
Drew Hallett: Michigan’s defense was stellar in the second half after being very good in the first, but the difference in this game was Michigan’s offense. The Wolverines really struggled to move the ball consistently in the first two quarters. They had eight first-half drives, and five ended as three-and-outs or three-and-picks. As a result, Michigan in the first half had 84 yards on its touchdown drive, 34 free yards to close out the half, and only 13 yards on its other six drives. That is frankly terrible, and it was hard not to ponder just how broken Michigan’s offense was.
However, Michigan was much sharper in the second half. Why? Michigan decided to put its faith in John O’Korn and air out the ball more. The Wolverines were too conservative in the first half, and Purdue was responding by creeping in closer and closer to the line of scrimmage. Runs were getting smothered, blitzers were racing in freely, and Michigan could not punish the Boilermakers over the top. The Wolverines, though, began sending its tight ends on crossing routes, and Purdue could not cover them. O’Korn showed poise and delivered in a big way, hitting those routes frequently and completing 11 of his 16 second-half passes for 178 yards. Everything else then opened up, and Michigan capitalized with three second-half touchdown drives that traveled at least 65 yards. The Wolverines simply wore down Purdue, racking up 292 yards and 7.3 YPP after halftime, and for the first time all year, Michigan’s offense had a rhythm.
Now it’s just a question of whether Michigan can sustain this rhythm moving forward.
Josh LaFond: I'm not sure anyone makes better halftime adjustments than Jim Harbaugh and company. As Drew just said, Michigan wore down Purdue, and the holes that opened up for the running backs later in the game showed that. Although they lost a few battles early on, the Wolverines clearly won the war in the trenches.
To address the second part of the question, my takeaways from that second-half effort are just the fact that this team doesn't quit. Being down 10-7 at the half to a team that, as was mentioned in the outset, was a trendy upset pick, could have put Michigan into a hole they couldn't get out of. Instead, they fought tooth and nail and showed perseverance that not many teams have.
Wilton Speight exited in the first quarter with what has been labeled a “soft tissue” injury, and John O’Korn came in to complete 18-of-26 passes for 270 yards, a touchdown, and an interception, and led four touchdown drives. Is a quarterback controversy brewing?
Drew: No, because John O’Korn is Michigan’s starting quarterback.
I have been a staunch Wilton Speight supporter, believing he had been receiving too much of the blame for the end of last season and the start of this season. However, Michigan’s offense has lacked any sort of consistency with Speight under center (for a variety of reasons) and was in a funk again in the first quarter against Purdue. It was only after O’Korn entered when the offense began to show signs of life. O’Korn led Michigan to a touchdown on his first drive of the game, connecting on 5-of-5 passes for 61 yards and a third-down score. Some issues arose later in the first half when he tossed an interception on a pass that was too late and on the wrong side of Grant Perry (a dangerous recipe) and panicked in the pocket too quickly. But he settled down in the second half and was strong. He fired precise passes to his receivers on key downs -- none more impressive than the bullet through an NFL window to Sean McKeon for a 23-yard gain on 2nd & 17 to set up a Michigan touchdown. He showed off his toughness bulldozing through Purdue defenders for 12 yards on a 2nd & 11. He demonstrated his moxie by relishing in some redemption as Michigan pulled away:
John O'Korn felt he came full circle today. Tony Levine, the HC who benched him at Houston, is Purdue's co-OC.— Nick Baumgardner (@nickbaumgardner) September 24, 2017
Asked O'Korn if he was yelling in Levine's general direction after that first TD 'Provably in his exact direction.'— Nick Baumgardner (@nickbaumgardner) September 24, 2017
O’Korn looked his best as a Wolverine, and with him taking the snaps, Michigan had its most complete offensive half of the season. It would be one thing if the offense had been performing relatively well with Speight at quarterback, but it hadn’t. I hope that Speight’s injury is not too serious and that he will be available against Michigan State. But with an extra week to prepare, there is no better time for Michigan to make a switch at quarterback. And after Saturday, the switch should be made to O’Korn.
Kevin Bunkley: I appreciated John O’Korn’s willingness to escape trouble. He’s not a conventional dual threat of course, but he moved around enough to extend plays. Michigan hasn’t gotten that out of Wilton Speight much so far this year. Something is just off with Speight. I doubt anyone on the coaching staff will admit it, but I think he’s hesitating to avoid getting hurt. Then that went out the window as soon as he actually did get hurt and couldn’t stay in the game. There’s still a big drop-off in ability to me. O’Korn made a few mistakes, including one very bad attempted throwaway that almost ended up in Purdue’s hands, but for right now, he isn’t as afraid to make reads and put the ball where it’s supposed to go.
Josh: Hey, John O’Korn haters, the JOKe’s on you, get it? Haha, I digress.
The facts are this: O’Korn threw for 270 yards in a little over three quarters, which is impressive on its own. After his first touchdown strike to Zach Gentry, O’Korn made me -- and most of the Michigan fan base -- nervous with his lack of pocket presence. I thought for sure we'd all be in for a long day. Instead he calmed down and led this team to an impressive win.
As if that stat line wasn't enough, his feisty in-game personality seemed to rally the team together, and I think that's definitely an advantage. I'm with Drew on this one too, that there's no quarterback controversy because O’Korn is your man. With the game he had, the aura of confidence he's got, and the incumbent bye week, I expect him to be the starter when the Spartans come to town.
John O’Korn’s favorite targets were clearly his tight ends. Sean McKeon (82 yards) and Zach Gentry (48 yards) were Michigan’s two leading receivers. What did you make of their performance? Do you foresee the tight ends being this involved moving forward?
Drew: Jim Harbaugh has an eye for tight ends. Sean McKeon was an unknown three-star from the Northeast. Zach Gentry a quarterback from New Mexico. And now they’re spearheading a dangerous group of pass-catching tight ends, especially with John O’Korn at quarterback. O’Korn had a real fondness for his tight ends against Purdue, targeting them as often as his wide receivers (11 for each) and relying on them for key completions in the middle of the field. McKeon has been a great route-runner thus far, popping open in small pockets for the quarterback, and Gentry has exhibited some agility and wheels in the open field after he catches the ball. Though Gentry did have an inexcusable drop, they can be great safety nets for O’Korn or whoever is Michigan’s quarterback. And if they are targeted more frequently, it will open space on the outside for the receivers. Their involvement in the offense on Saturday was a very promising development.
Josh: Good god almighty it felt good to see the tight ends get PLENTY of looks on Saturday! Zach Gentry seems to be improving each and every week. This game seemed to be somewhat of a coming-out party for the former quarterback. Sean McKeon looks like a very steady, reliable weapon for this offense. It was also a shame to see Nick Eubanks’ day get cut short the way it did. Here's to hoping he can recover fully.
As for their involvement in the offense going forward, I think we will see them having a more impactful role throughout the year. With what I imagine will be a new starter in O’Korn, they will provide him with steady safety nets that will keep the chains moving.
As a side note, look for Eubanks to get red-zone looks as the season progresses. His height, speed, and athleticism creates big mismatches, and he could be in line for jump ball passes from inside the 20.
Oh, by the way: MICHIGAN WENT THREE-FOR-THREE IN THE RED ZONE! THOUGHTS?!
Drew: Thank god. In a game where Michigan was not producing chunk plays early, Michigan could not afford not to punch the ball in for seven points once it entered the red zone. And Michigan capitalized. The Wolverines went to a mesh route with Zach Gentry and a constraint to Chris Evans which opened a huge hole to score the first two red-zone touchdowns. These were well-designed and well-executed plays that utilized Michigan’s talents and advantages in a constricted space. And then Ty Isaac added the third red-zone touchdown by bullying his way across the goal line into the end zone.
Michigan should have the red-zone monkey off its back. Let’s see if it remains that way.
Kevin: It only took a backup quarterback and the secondary (tertiary?) running back to unlock the scoring power of this offense! Probably can’t learn much from Purdue’s defensive front, but the right side of Michigan’s line opened up a very big lane for Chris Evans on that red-zone score.
Josh: REDZONE = ENDZONE! Sweet lord it felt good to see Michigan punch it in every trip down.
Michigan won the battle in the trenches each of those thre trips down there, and that was encouraging to see. More and more throughout the year, look for those mesh routes and constraint runs like Drew mentioned. Both are excellent plays that not only create space (mesh route) but also can catch the defense off guard (constraint runs) while utilizing the elusiveness of guys like Chris Evans and Karan Higdon.
One of the marquee matchups on Saturday was offensive wizard Jeff Brohm versus defensive mastermind Don Brown. Winner? Brown, as Michigan held Purdue to 189 yards and 10 points. What impressed you most about this defense? Just how good are they?
Drew: Brace yourself: Purdue gained only 10 yards on 18 plays in the second half. That’s it.
With Michigan trailing by three at halftime and its offense spinning its wheels, the defense needed to perform at an elite level to give U-M a chance to win this game. So the unit responded by forcing Purdue into four straight three-and-outs to open the second half.
It’s hard to come up much bigger than that.
The truth is that Michigan’s defense was spectacular. Yes, in the first half, Purdue found some success by exploiting Michigan’s aggressiveness with misdirection, particularly trick plays, tunnel screens, and throwbacks to the tight end. The Boilermakers experienced most of their success on their touchdown drive when they marched 75 yards on five plays, all of which featured misdirection designed to suck in Michigan’s defense to the wrong area. It was Jeff Brohm at his best, and it left Michigan fans wondering when Brohm would strike again.
But he never did. Because Don Brown adjusted and Michigan pummeled Purdue in the second half. The defensive line dominated. Devin Bush was everywhere. And the Boilermakers’ receivers could not escape Michigan’s coverage. The Wolverines completely stifled this now dangerous offense and demonstrated (again) that they have one of the nation’s best defenses:
Michigan Defense (Week 4)— Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) September 24, 2017
Scoring D: t-12th
Total D: 1st
Run D: 4th
Pass D: 8th
QB Rtg: 5th
Josh: Zero third-down conversions converted? Check. Thirty rushing yards allowed? Check. Holding Purdue to 10 TOTAL YARDS in the second half? CHECK CHECK! Get used to this, Michigan fans. Don Brown is an elite football coach, and that's at any level. The game plans, play calling, and talent that his defenses have will continue to keep them in games.
Man, this defense this special! I don't think I've seen a Wolverine defense fly to the ball as quick as these guys do. If you take out those two misdirection passes to the tight end, Purdue wasn't moving the ball much at all on Saturday. They're already elite, but watching them improve on their outstanding play as the year goes on is a scary thought.
When a defense plays as well as Michigan’s did, all eleven defenders tend to deserve attention and praise. But was there one or two Wolverines who stood out the most?
Drew: Chase Winovich and Devin Bush. Much of the talk about Michigan’s defense in the preseason was about Rashan Gary. Yet Gary isn’t even Michigan’s best defensive end. Winovich was unstoppable against Purdue, totaling six tackles, four tackles for loss, and three sacks. His three sacks were the most by a Wolverine since Brandon Graham tallied three against Michigan State in 2008. And now Winovich has eight tackles for loss and six sacks for the season. Through four games. That is remarkable. Winovich has exceeded all expectations. He was a pass-rushing specialist for Michigan last season, but he has done everything for U-M this season. His technique has been great, his pursuit relentless, and he always seems to be in the backfield whether the opponent is running or throwing the ball. And because of that, Winovich is beginning to make himself the biggest nightmare for offensive coordinators.
Bush is another nightmare for opposing offensive coordinators. Bush had just six tackles against Purdue, but it felt as if he had 12. Bush was everywhere, as he always is, because his speed allows him to make plays all over the field. Many times Purdue tried to pick up chunks on the edge with deception, and often Bush was in the vicinity to make the stop or slow it down before his teammates arrived to help. With Bush on the field, Michigan’s defense feels so much faster than it has in previous seasons. He continues to perform like an absolute star for Michigan in the middle of the defense.
Kevin: Devin Bush, again. Five solo tackles plus a sack. Guy is everywhere, and opposing offenses don’t even know he’s there because he’s so dang fast.
Josh: Chase Winovich, and Devin Bush Jr. are my guys. Was there ever any doubt? Winovich is playing his way into an All-Big Ten season, and so is Bush.
Watching No. 10 fly past a block and into the backfield or getting sideline to sideline quicker than you can say “oh dear god don't you get to the edge” is a comforting thought.
Let's not forget about Chase, though. Everyone pegged Rashan Gary to have the season he's had thus far, and rightfully so, Gary has proven he's a force to be reckoned with again and again with teams doubling and even triple teaming him. But that means teams leave their tackle one on one with Winovich, and time after time, it proves fatal.
What is the one thing Michigan fans should be happiest about after this win against Purdue? What is the one thing that should worry Michigan fans the most?
Drew: Michigan fans should be happy that the Wolverines closed out the win by playing their most complete half of the season. All previous halves had featured some positives (mostly on the defensive side of the ball), but there were many other mistakes and red flags. However, in the second half, Michigan was hitting on all cylinders: offense, defense, and special teams. As a result, Michigan outscored Purdue, 21-0, and outgained them, 292-10, in the final 30 minutes. And that is against a resurgent Purdue team playing in front of its first sellout crowd since 2008. It was a sign that this Michigan team can put all the pieces together to look like a top-10 team.
Michigan’s pass protection should still worry fans the most. It was better in the second half, but there are still too many miscues. Purdue entered this weekend with just one sack in three games. Yet they had two in the first three series against Michigan (knocking out Wilton Speight), finished with four sacks, and put pressure on Speight or John O’Korn repeatedly. The biggest concern was that the Boilermakers often generated pressure with a free or unimpeded rusher. This sometimes happened because Michigan’s offensive line did not effectively communicate their pre-snap assignments. One one play, both Mason Cole and Ty Isaac went to corral an edge rusher as a linebacker charged in with no blocker nearby. This also happened because Michigan’s running backs whiffed in their protection. Karan Higdon was guilty. Isaac, too. O’Korn did a good enough job to avoid some of it and make critical plays outside the pocket to keep Michigan’s drives alive. However, if Purdue, which had struggled to rush the passer, was this much of a pest, other Big Ten foes will bring the heat as well.
Kevin: I’m happy that tight ends exist in this offense again. I’m not happy that it took the backup quarterback to prove that they still exist.
Josh: I'm a bad news first kind of guy so here it goes; Pass protection has been sketchy, and Karan Higdon can't seem to make that quick cut into a wide open lane.
Do I think both of those things will improve? Yes, I do. But the fact remains that they're issues that will continue to haunt this team unless addressed. If Higdon can hit those holes, this offense could really open things up especially when he's on the field.
As far as the pass pro goes, it remains to be seen how they'll mesh. I liked the improvement from Nolan Ulizio today as well as the entire line in that aspect. Hopefully the approaching bye week will help iron out any potential personnel shifts and work out the kinks that are plaguing them from taking the leap.
Good news time; John O’Korn is fun to watch. The tight ends are back. Michigan fought through adversity, pulled ahead, and closed out the game with the offensive line.
We already touched on JOK and the tight ends, so I'll mention the last note quickly. We all know the story: Michigan dropped three out of the last four games last season, and that was in large part due to the fact they couldn't close out games in the trenches. Now yes, Purdue isn't the level that Florida State, Ohio State, or even Iowa were at then, but the Wolverines could have taken their foot off the gas like they did last season and allow the opponent to dictate their moves on offense. The fact is, they never let that happen, and that's what separates good teams from GREAT teams.
Michigan now enters its bye week and has an extra seven days to prepare for its in-state rival Michigan State. What do you expect that the coaching staff will emphasize most?
Drew: Getting John O’Korn ready and preparing the offensive line to block Michigan State’s dastardly double A-gap blitz. Again and again and again and again.
Kevin: Wrapping Wilton Speight in pillows and soft foam, only to be taken out at 7:45pm on October 7th. Assuming the game against the Spartans is a night game...
Josh: Continuing to groom John O’Korn, work out the kinks along the offensive line, and work on the wide receiver rotation.
Did Saturday’s win affect your expectations for this Michigan team in any way?
Drew: Michigan’s defense is clearly elite, but I still need to see the offense be consistent for more than a half before I move off my initial 9-3 prediction. But this was absolutely a step in the right direction for Michigan’s Big Ten championship hopes.
Kevin: It affected my expectation of how this Michigan team should close out a game. Purdue’s offense didn’t put up a fight in the second half, but Don Brown has figured out how to not even let them put up a fight. I now expect Michigan to do that in every game that they hold the lead.
Josh: Not yet. Although I see JOK as the starter moving forward, I want to see how he plays against Michigan State before I adjust my expectations. I'll say this, though: I see Michigan's floor at 9-3 for the time being. Yes, things can change, but with the defense that they have and hopefully sustained quarterbacking, they could make a run.