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Reaction Roundtable: No. 9 Ohio State 31, Michigan 20

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

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. And, by the end, we will wrap up what you need to know before the next game week.

Drew Hallett: For the sixth straight season and 13th time in 14 years, Michigan lost to Ohio State. This time, the score was 31-20, though it doesn’t resemble how competitive this game was. Michigan was in it from the get-go, climbing out to a 14-0 advantage, and it wasn’t until the final minutes when the Buckeyes secured a two-score lead. In fact, with 2:47 left, Michigan had the ball with a chance to score and upset Ohio State.

But that chance was squandered on the very next play by John O’Korn.

Our discussion of this result must start with O’Korn, but before we do so, I feel the following needs to be said. There is O’Korn, the person, and O’Korn, the player. By all accounts, O’Korn is a high-quality person. He has battled adversity throughout his career, surrendering his starting spot at Houston and losing his quarterback competition with Wilton Speight at Michigan. Yet O’Korn has been an exemplary representative for Michigan. There is no questioning of the effort and emotion that he invested into Michigan. Just watch his presser after the loss on Saturday. He wanted to do anything in his power to win games in Ann Arbor, including the biggest one in college football. He gave everything he had to Michigan, did everything he could to make Michigan a better program, even if it meant his contributions were on State Street rather than Main Street. And anything O’Korn has done on the football field is overshadowed by how he has touched the life of Larry Prout, a teenaged Michigan superfan with over 100 surgeries, which Bleacher Report’s Adam Kramer wonderfully described in his feature last week.

Yes, O’Korn can be criticized (and will be criticized) for his play on Saturday. That is deserved. What is not deserved and is downright shameful is anyone who attacks O’Korn’s character, integrity, or ambition because of how he performed on a football field. Football doesn’t define who O’Korn is as a person, nor will it ever define who he is.

Fans should be proud he is a Wolverine regardless of what happened on Saturday.

With that being said, it is time to talk about what happened on Saturday and discuss O’Korn, the player. Unfortunately, O’Korn was the reason for Michigan’s demise. The Buckeyes are very talented defensively, but they can be exposed through the air. In their two losses, they allowed quarterbacks to complete 48-of-67 passes for (71.6%) for 630 yards (9.4 YPA), eight touchdowns, and no interceptions. Though it was very unlikely O’Korn would put up those sort of numbers, Michigan designed plays for him to make.

However, O’Korn rarely capitalized. He made one pinpoint throw to Zach Gentry down the seam for 27 yards on 3rd & 8 to extend Michigan’s first scoring drive. Otherwise, he repeatedly made critical mistakes. He bobbled a snap in the first half. He fumbled a screen pass in the third quarter which dropped Michigan into a 3rd & 26. More than once, he rolled to his right out of the pocket, saw that no receiver had gotten free or missed the open wideout, and refused to throw the ball away, instead needlessly taking a sack. In the fourth quarter on the OSU 45-yard line, Michigan had 2nd & 1 when O’Korn tripped whilst taking the snap and stumbled for a three-yard loss, putting Michigan in a position where it had to throw on third and fourth down rather than pound it with its running back or the Hammering Panda. There were the overthrows. When O’Korn feels any semblance of pressure, he leans backwards and throws off his back foot, which results in putting too much air on the ball. He overthrew an open 6-foot-7 Ty Wheatley, Jr. over the middle on a delayed tight end seam on third down on the first drive. He missed an open Sean McKeon on a wheel route in the end zone. He inexplicably missed an open Chris Evans on a Texas route on that critical 4th & 4 when all he needed to do was shotput it to him. O’Korn just left too many plays on the field.

And then he had a chance to redeem himself. After Ohio State missed a 43-yard field goal, Michigan had the ball on its 27-yard line with less than three minutes left and needing a touchdown to take the lead. Yet on the very first play of the drive, O’Korn completely misread the coverage. Kekoa Crawford was running an option route and recognized that Ohio State’s safeties were deep in coverage, so he correctly ran a dig route underneath that would have netted at least 17 yards. Instead, O’Korn, with pressure in his face, chucked it deep thinking Crawford would run the post route, and the arm punt landed in the waiting arms of Jordan Fuller for a pick to all but seal it.

It’s difficult not to imagine how this game would have turned out if Speight or Brandon Peters were not injured. Jim Harbaugh and his staff called an excellent offensive game. They unleashed a new playbook with new formations and schemes that Ohio State was not prepared for, and it resulted in Michigan’s receivers getting open for potential big plays. These weren’t plays where a quarterback needed to throw a dime for them to work. Only a solid throw was needed. An average quarterback would have made them.

Unfortunately, O’Korn was less than average on Saturday and failed to execute them.

This leaves me with two questions: (1) Do you think that Michigan would have won this game with Speight or Peters? (2) Do you think Harbaugh should be criticized for not developing O’Korn into an average quarterback during his three years in Ann Arbor?

Josh LaFond: The Big House was rocking on Saturday, and it really felt like Michigan was going to win. However, like you said, Drew, the loss fell on the subpar QB play.

Let me start with your first question: Yes, I think Michigan would’ve won had either of those two started. I said as much in our pre-Ohio State roundtable and behind closed doors. If Peters or Speight was to start, it would be a 28-17 victory for Michigan. If it was O’Korn, it’d be a 31-13 Ohio State win. And I stand by that. All the Wolverines needed was to hit a few shots. There were about nine of them — it felt more like 30 — that were missed Saturday, and they just needed to hit two or three. But O’Korn just couldn’t do it. Had Speight or Peters started, we might be discussing not a U-M win, but U-M blowout.

To answer your second question: I don’t think Jim Harbaugh should be criticized for O’Korn’s lack of ability. Harbaugh has done a stellar job with the quarterback talent he’s inherited. Speight was just a big, tall, lumbering quarterback at the bottom of the depth chart. Harbaugh turned him into an All-Big Ten caliber player last season and transformed Jake Rudock from a benched game manager into an NFL quarterback.

I’ll preface what I want to say with this: O’Korn is a heck of a guy, is very generous with his time and resources, and has a good heart. But here’s the thing: Harbaugh has and will always get the most out of his quarterbacks. If O’Korn had the slightest bit of game-managing potential, you best believe that Harbaugh would have developed it by now. It’s just simply not there, and nothing could have done about it. You can’t turn a Pontiac Fiero into a Ferrari or even a Prius no matter how hard you try. Does that mean we should all rip on O’Korn? No. He’s a terrific human who I KNOW will make his mark on this world for good. But his football talent wasn’t there to make that same mark.

Drew: I disagree with you, Josh, that Harbaugh isn’t deserving of criticism. He should not be criticized for his gameplan against Ohio State. Anyone will be mocked for doing so because his gameplan put a Michigan team with a below-average third-string quarterback in a position to win. But Harbaugh should be criticized for why O’Korn struggled so much this season. O’Korn is not a typical third-stringer. He’s a fifth-year senior with three years in the program who threw for over 3,000 yards at Houston. He’s someone that Harbaugh identified as a talent that could be a stopgap for Michigan’s quarterback issues that stirred up under Brady Hoke. He’s someone who should have been developed enough to perform at an average level by this point. Not someone who had to light defenses on fire. But someone who could stand in the pocket and make the throws he missed against Ohio State. That O’Korn was unable to reach that level spoiled Harbaugh’s great gameplan, and Harbaugh deserves some blame for that.

O’Korn will receive the brunt of the criticism for this loss, and quarterback play will be the topic du jour throughout the offseason. But this was not the only reason why Michigan fell victim to Ohio State. Michigan’s defense was excellent this season, ranking in the top 10 in Defensive S&P+ after replacing essentially nine starters with mostly sophomores, and early on, they were stifling Ohio State’s offense. But when the Wolverines had their chances to deliver big blows later in the game, they missed them too frequently. In the second quarter, Josh Metellus, who had a game he’d like to forget, dropped an absolute gift just in front of the end zone that J.T. Barrett threw right to him. If Metellus doesn’t let that ball slip through his fingers, Michigan maintains its 14-0 lead, and the pressure continues to mount against Ohio State. Instead, the Buckeyes scored on the next play after a delay of game penalty, and the tide suddenly started to turn.

Then, in the third quarter, after Michigan grabbed a 20-14 lead and Barrett exited with a knee injury, the Wolverines’ defense had an opportunity to close this game out. Instead, Michigan permitted backup Dwayne Haskins and the Buckeyes to convert five straight third downs on successive scoring drives. Credit must be given to Haskins, who looked poised in the pocket and delivered an incredible strike to Austin Mack between two Wolverines for 27 yards on 3rd & 13, but Michigan could not make the winning play.


What else would you attribute to this loss?

Josh: Although Metellus’ dropped interception and some really poor officiating for the umpteenth time in The Game (I mean, did you truly expect it to improve?) impacted the result, it really did fall on quarterback play. Quarterback play also affected Michigan’s defense, especially when the Buckeyes ran the read option towards the end. O’Korn not keeping drives alive caused the defense to go back on the field far too often, and that’s when Ohio State took Michigan our behind the barn, aimed, and pulled the trigger.

The read option and other edge runs wore out an already exhausted defensive line, and Ohio State capitalized with huge runs by Mike Weber, J.K. Dobbins, and even Haskins. It flipped this game from a possible Michigan win to a Buckeye team fully in control.

Drew: I dislike raising the issue of officiating, particularly for a second straight week, but its impact should not be discounted. It was not the reason Michigan lost on Saturday, but there was some significant calls or no-calls that went against Michigan in critical moments. Twice Ohio State’s defensive backs were not flagged for egregious holds, one on Donovan Peoples-Jones and the other on Eddie McDoom, which stalled Michigan drives. The spot was bad (yet again) when, near the end of the first half, O’Korn scrambled on third down and extended the ball past the marker before being pushed out of bounds. Yet the official spotted the ball a yard short, and the call was somehow not overturned on replay. It’s no guarantee that Michigan would have scored on that drive, but it robbed Michigan of a chance to at least put up a Hail Mary before heading into the halftime. There was also an egregious hold that was missed when Haskins scrambled down to the goal line to set up Ohio State’s game-winning score. Maurice Hurst had burst past the OSU lineman and was about to haul down Haskins before he was mugged. But there was no call. To be fair, the Buckeyes were not the only side to benefit from poor officiating. O’Korn’s long completion to McDoom should have never happened as the ball wasn’t snapped until after the play clock had expired. However, the officiating favored Ohio State, and it made it tougher for Michigan to win.

Given what transpired in 2016, you just want to see the officiating be even.

Even if it’s awful both ways, I guess.

So this loss to Ohio State wakes up feelings of frustration and disappointment, much like this season did. This season was a disappointment for Michigan. It wasn’t a vast one however. Most pegged that Michigan would be a top-25 team with a 9-3 record, and the Wolverines fell one win shy of that. So the idea that they were one of the most disappointing teams in college football, as an ESPN poll suggested last week, is ludicrous considering happened with some of the more prestigious Florida programs.

However, it was a disappointment nonetheless. Michigan did not earn a single quality win. Their best win was on the road against Purdue (Top 40 in S&P+), though it doesn’t have much luster after the Boilermakers dropped games to Rutgers and Nebraska. Michigan lost to all four quality opponents that it faced. Three of those losses were understandable: Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State. All three are top-10 teams, with Michigan facing the former two in hostile territory. The one that is not is the home four-point loss to Michigan State in a torrential downpour with a minus-five turnover margin. If Michigan had won that game, the entire perception of this season is altered. The Wolverines would have fallen exactly in line with their preseason projections and earned at least one win against a rival. Instead, Michigan will now have to endure an offseason of talk about how Harbaugh cannot beat his rivals and is 1-5 vs. them overall and 0-4 vs. them at home despite how close most of those losses were. That is what makes Saturday so frustrating. Michigan had its chances to put all of that talk to bed.

But it didn’t, as the talent disparity at quarterback was too much to overcome.

How do you feel about 2017? Did the loss to OSU change your expectations for 2018?

Josh: I was wrong and it sucks. I thought this team had the legs to go 11-1 with the lone loss to PSU. I will always shoot you straight, but I always plan for the worst and hope for the best. I am the glass half full kind of guy and I thought the Wolverines would prove me right. I’ll take it on the chin.

I can live with the Penn State loss, they were always going to beat us. When you beat someone 49-10 and run the same play for almost an entire drive you best believe it’ll piss the other team off. That’s what Penn State used as fuel after last season and that’s fine. They opened up every trick play and wrinkle to beat Michigan to kingdom come. That was also a bad decision because those wrinkles were then all on film for their losses to Ohio State and MSU. *cringing*

The Michigan State loss is the one that hurts the most. That was a game that Michigan had NO BUSINESS losing, and they all know it. It was bad play calling and yet again, bad QB play. It’s the one that stings the most.

But don’t let me further ruin your already depressing post-loss day. Michigan is in a great position to win the conference next season. Everyone comes back minus 4 starters on offense and defense COMBINED! If they showed anything against Wisconsin (once Brandon Peters went out) and Ohio State it’s that they were a QB a way from being a true contender for the conference and more. Sure, there are concerns at left and right tackle on the o-line and also with the safety play but with an off-season of improvement across the board especially in those two departments I’m ecstatic with what Michigan will do next year.

Now I know it’s early and we will get into schedule breakdowns, position previews, and season projections in the next few months. Just know that with the returning talent, and now with a Jim Harbaugh recruited and developed QB, whether that be Peters, McCaffrey or someone else (presumably Peters) that the Death Star is up, it’s fully loaded operational, and unlike Star Wars, it’s not going to be destroyed. Here’s to a fun bowl game win and an offseason filled with excitement.

Kevin Bunkley: This was never going to be an easy season. Oddly, though, a totally different set of weaknesses crept up after the first couple games. Most weren’t sure the defense would continue to be great. It was. Most thought the receivers would struggle. They were acceptable, though not given a ton of chances to make plays. Everyone thought the quarterback position was the most stable thing about the offense. It was the main reason Michigan lost four games.

Michigan was a stable quarterback away from a third ten-win season in a row. No one (read: rational M fans) can claim they thought that was a possibility when Harbaugh took over. The players on this roster were woefully underdeveloped and not enough upperclassmen remained to stabilize the experience hole left by the previous two coaching staffs. Harbaugh’s task became one of complete overhaul, and some aren’t happy it has produced three seasons with inconsistent results. ESPN pointed out last night that Nick Saban has lost to Auburn seven times when the Tigers have had at least nine wins. That is almost half of Saban’s losses at Alabama.

Yet Jim Harbaugh is three years into his tenure and gets trashed for failing to beat Ohio State in three tries and beating Michigan State only once. The comically poor (and growing) record against ranked teams on the road is more of a symptom of the program, since it has floundered in mixed results across four coaches, for eleven years. It’s a systemic problem Harbaugh was brought here to fix. 2017 merely reminded us there is still development to be had, more recruits to secure, and the overhaul charges onward. Michigan beat who they were supposed to this year, and lost to better teams because Michigan isn’t the better team yet.

The gameplan Harbaugh and crew came up with yesterday was probably the best of his short tenure in Ann Arbor. Maybe Jim was more involved in the preparation than usual, maybe he kicked Pep and Drevno in the rear, who knows. It signaled to me that these guys can prepare for every opponent. Behind the scenes they’re working to correct all these little problems that are still festering. One cannot argue that there aren’t some encouraging results. Rashan Gary, in his first full year as a starter, basically doubled Chris Wormley’s stat line from a year ago.

Khaleke Hudson damn near replicated Jabrill Peppers’s stat line from last year, but with more sacks and more interceptions. Maurice Hurst was never slowed down by anyone. Tyree Kinnel mimicked Jourdan Lewis line-by-line. Devin Bush went from 12 tackles a year ago as a backup to 94 and counting as a starter. Karan Higdon and Chris Evans leapfrogged all of their stats from last year and combined for 17 touchdowns.

Concerned about player development still? The quarterback is the final piece of this freight train Harbaugh will run over all the doubters with next year and beyond.

2018 sets up extremely well for this team. It’s the #RevengeTour, I’m telling you all right now. Road games against all our rivals, a front-loaded home schedule, and almost the entire roster back. All these other B1G schools are getting their jabs in at Michigan now before the destruction hits.