Before the season started, Michigan heading to West Lafayette to open the conference slate meant very little. “Two bye weeks in a row,” I’m sure some thought, based on the performances from both teams in 2016. But that mindset shifted quickly as the Boilermakers gave Lamar Jackson and Louisville a fight in Week 1 and then pounded Missouri on the road in Week 3.
Suddenly, Michigan had a serious opponent on the schedule.
Leading up to the game, Purdue was a popular underdog selection by analysts and fans alike. And for the first two quarters on Saturday, that looked like a wise pick. But that’s when Michigan woke up (okay, mostly the offense, since the defense was pretty dominant all game), and tacked on 21 unanswered second half points to pull off the 28-10 victory.
Let’s take a look at some of the lessons we learned about this squad against Purdue.
Lesson 1: This team has some grit (and a dominant defense)
For the second time this season, the Wolverines headed to the locker room at halftime trailing their opponent. For the second time, they overcame that deficit in nearly dominant fashion. The cumulative second half scores in those two contests: Michigan 41, Florida & Purdue 0.
That’s resilience. That’s grit.
In both games, it was the offense that was truly struggling heading into halftime. In both games, the offense found a little rhythm in the second half, but the defense absolutely dominated. Against Florida, the defense allowed 88 yards and zero points in the second half, and against Purdue it allowed just 15 yards and zero points.
This trend isn’t new, of course — the defense has allowed just 10 points per game this season (if you don’t count the two pick-sixes in Week 1 that the offense surrendered) — but with an offense that has struggled as much as Michigan’s has so far this season, that puts a ton of pressure on the defense. Michigan’s hasn’t flinched. When one facet of a team is struggling, it’s up to the rest of the team to pick them up. That’s what the defense has done through four games.
Overcoming adversity is a hallmark of any successful team. This team certainly seems to have it.
Lesson 2: The quarterback situation is pretty clear
First of all, you never want to see a quarterback lose his starting job because he suffered an injury. That’s a tough way for it all to play out. But I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what just happened to Wilton Speight.
Through three games, Speight showed very little promise of building upon his fairly good inaugural season as the starter last year. He’s completed just 54 percent of his passes for 581 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions. And while we still don’t know what his status is moving forward, even if he’s healthy it likely won’t be “starter.”
Well, because there’s John O’Korn, a guy who stepped in after Speight’s injury on Saturday and completed 18-of-26 for 270 yards, a touchdown and one pick (off a deflection). O’Korn did things that Speight did a little last season, while also adding a much-needed ability to scramble.
There were several plays Saturday where O’Korn kept the play alive in the pocket and was able to make a play. One in particular, deep in Michigan’s own territory, O’Korn spun away from a defender to avoid the sack and then kept his eyes downfield to find Grant Perry for the first down. O’Korn also fit the ball into tight windows, seemingly making every throw he needed to make.
These are plays that Speight, plainly, had not made in 2017 thus far and would not have made Saturday. When the Spartans come to town on October 7, O’Korn should be the guy. He opens up the playbook and spreads out defenses, giving the Michigan offense a greater opportunity to be successful. And if he can play like he did against Purdue, I expect this offense to continue putting up serious points.
Lesson 3: Aha! This team can score touchdowns in the red zone!
Before Saturday, Michigan had reached the red zone 10 times in its first three games, and only one of those trips had resulted in a touchdown (Drew Hallett broke it down in-depth last week). It truly was the ‘dead zone’ through three contests, with Michigan collapsing and settling for field goals each time it seemed to have a touchdown opportunity.
That changed against Purdue.
On Saturday, Michigan went 3-for-3 in the red zone, first when O’Korn connected with tight end Zach Gentry on a short crossing route, and then later with Chris Evans and Ty Isaac punching in short runs.
Does this mean the red zone woes are in the rearview for the Wolverines? Maybe not entirely, but I believe this newfound success is a product of O’Korn’s playmaking ability. He showed the ability to extend plays and open up defenses, and that kept the Purdue defense honest and allowed for big holes up the middle on runs like Evans’s touchdown late in the third quarter.
Lesson 4: The bye week is coming at an opportune time
The first four games have been difficult to watch at times. The Michigan offense had its share of ups and downs (mostly downs), and there were several mistakes made by this inexperienced team on defense and special teams as well. However, in the second half against Purdue, it all finally felt like it was starting to come together.
Now this young team will get a chance to rest before it gets back on the field with a goal to make a run for the conference title. The offense will also have time to get its timing down with new quarterback John O’Korn, which will be very valuable before the matchup with Michigan State.
There are also quite a number of banged up Wolverines that could use some time to rest — besides Wilton Speight, looking at the receiving corps with guys like Kekoa Crawford, Nick Eubanks and Nate Schoenle.
Plus, it’s always nice to have an extra week to prep for a rivalry game. Let the countdown for MSU begin.