John O'Korn (#8) breathed life into the Michigan offense. [Patrick Barron]
While it certainly wasn't how they planned it, Michigan may have solved their passing problems.
The trip to Purdue couldn't have started off much worse. Facing a fired-up, trash-talking Boilermakers squad, the Wolverines looked ripe for an upset in the first half. For a while, the game seemed designed for maximum frustration; first the preceding baseball game went into extra innings, causing out-of-staters to scramble to find the Fox Business Channel. Then, more disconcertingly, the offense looked even more broken than before.
Karan Higdon rushed for a first down on Michigan's first offensive snap. They'd go three-and-out to follow; the next two drives ended in the same fashion. The offensive line couldn't protect Wilton Speight or open up holes for the backs, the playcalling felt predictable and conservative. Midway through the first quarter, the game was deadlocked in an ugly scoreless draw.
Then an awkward hit changed the course of the game, and perhaps Michigan's season. As Markus Bailey came through the line untouched to sack Speight, 295-pound defensive tackle Eddy Wilson delivered a second blow that crumpled Michigan's quarterback, who stayed down before eventually being taken for X-rays and further testing. This was disaster. Yes, Speight hadn't been good this season, but he'd won the job for the second straight year over John O'Korn, and O'Korn didn't inspire any confidence in his previous appearances in maize and blue.
Zach Gentry dives for the touchdown. [Eric Upchurch]
So, of course, O'Korn promptly led the offense on a 13-play, 84-yard touchdown drive, completing all five of his passes, including a 12-yard scoring toss to Zach Gentry. Michigan had finally broken through. Two questions loomed. First, could Purdue counter? Second, could O'Korn keep it going?
The early returns weren't good in either regard. The Boilermakers hit back on the very next drive, covering 75 yards in only five plays after switching from David Blough to Elijah Sindelar at quarterback. O'Korn followed that with an interception after he threw a ball well behind Kekoa Crawford. Purdue cashed in with a field goal and entered halftime with a 10-7 lead. The Boilermakers had outgained Michigan 179 yards to 131. With Michigan's offense primed to struggle, the game would likely come down to a battle of wits between Purdue mad scientist Jeff Brohm and Don Brown.
Purdue would finish the game with 189 yards. Winner: Brown.
The total dominance by the defense would've been enough to avoid the upset. The offense, to everyone's considerable relief, did much more than rely on that to carry the day. After a punt and a lost fumble by Higdon, Michigan mounted an 11-play, 86-yard drive that calmed a lot of nerves. The coaches seemed to simplify the playbook for O'Korn, who looked to his tight ends and Grant Perry to catch and run with short passes. The drive only got going in the first place when O'Korn improbably spun out of a sack, reset, and hit Perry to covert a third down. It ended on a gorgeous playcall when M lined up showing a crack sweep look but instead had Chris Evans hit an interior hole off the pitch; the unexpected constraint play allowed him to waltz in from ten yards out.
Chase Winovich, with three sacks, had another dominant game. [Bryan Fuller]
O'Korn's next drive featured more creating outside the pocket, more big plays to Sean McKeon and Zach Gentry, and a targeting penalty on Purdue's Jawhaun Bentley. Ty Isaac finished that one off from a yard out, squeezing through a tackle off the right side and bursting into the end zone.
At this point, Purdue was desperately flipping quarterbacks, but had no answer for Michigan's ferocious defense. Blough re-entered in the fourth quarter only to be pummeled into the turf. After the eighth of nine three-and-outs forced by the Wolverines, Evans broke the game wide open with a 49-yard slice through the gut of the defense. Up 28-10 against a team that couldn't move the ball, Michigan went into clock-killing mode. The final six minutes and change passed in a hurry, helped along when Mike Wroblewski knocked the ball out of Terry Wright's hands for a Noah Furbush fumble recovery.
After averaging a woeful 3.7 yards per play in the first half, Michigan hummed along at a 7.3-yard clip in the second. O'Korn, despite a couple hiccups, looked like a completely different player from the one who underwhelmed when Speight was hurt last year. The defense, meanwhile, amassed five sacks, three of them by Chase Winovich, and took the run away from the Boilermakers entirely.
After the game, Jim Harbaugh said Speight suffered a "soft tissue" injury and declined to give a timeline for how long he'd be out. With a bye week ahead to work with the first-team offense, however, it's hard to imagine O'Korn hasn't earned his shot to lead this team against Michigan State. At the very least, Michigan heads into their week off at 4-0 and finally carrying some momentum on offense.