Michigan State's Shane Jones (49) and teammates celebrate a 14-10 win over Michigan. BLADE/KATIE RAUSCH
ANN ARBOR — When an offense crumbles, fingers most often are pointed in the direction of the quarterback.
They touch the ball on every play and have a greater impact than perhaps any other position in all of team sports. However, that doesn’t mean a rhythm-less offense is the quarterback’s fault.
Wilton Speight caught some of the criticism in September, and after Saturday’s 14-10 loss to rival Michigan State, John O’Korn heard the detractors.
“You can’t expect to win when you turn the ball over [five] times,” said O’Korn, who threw three interceptions. “Three of them were 100 percent my fault. We’ve got to regroup and get better this week and get ready for Indiana.”
The issues facing Michigan’s offense are more complex than the quarterback throwing interceptions. And those interceptions aren’t entirely the fault of the person who throws them. Sure, O’Korn isn’t Tom Brady, but he’s a fine college quarterback who can deliver wins.
For the Wolverines, a maladroit offensive line is what ails the team.
“We’ve got to block better,” center Patrick Kugler said. “I don’t know how many times [O’Korn] was sacked, but we’ve got to do a lot of things better.”
Five games into the season, Michigan does not have a concrete lineup along the line. Michael Onwenu and Jon Runyan, Jr., have shared time at right guard, and Juwann Bushell-Beatty replaced right tackle Nolan Ulizio during the first half against the Spartans. Most of the breakdowns have come on the right side. Michigan State defensive linemen Kenny Willekes and Gerald Owens pestered Onwenu, Ulizio, and Bushell-Beatty to the tune of three sacks and three tackles for loss.
“I can understand the quarterback question and quarterback controversy, but I would never really discuss a right tackle, guard, or center controversy,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “But yes, we’ll look at that during the week.”
O’Korn finished with 24 rushing yards, and not a single yard came on a designed run. He was sacked four times — Michigan State also had six tackles for loss — and was under constant duress, evading Spartan defenders almost every time he dropped back. Michigan truly lost in the trenches, a trend that could lead to serious repercussions if one simply looks at the remaining schedule.
Michigan ranks near the bottom nationally in several offensive categories, sharing space with the likes of UMass, Georgia Southern, and Utah State. The Wolverines are 125th out of 130 in red-zone touchdown percentage (33.3 percent), 113th in percentage of possessions with a turnover (16.2) and first downs per possession (1.2), 109th in sacks (16), 102nd in third-down conversions (34.1 percent), and 100th in tackles for loss allowed (36).
Ineffectiveness on the right side of Michigan’s line has stunted the unit’s growth. Instability has only exacerbated the problem.
“Protection all this year has been a big focus for us,” said left tackle Mason Cole, UM’s best offensive lineman. “A lot of you guys might not think so, but we’ve got to get back to work. We’ll be alright.”
Tight ends coach Greg Frey, who also works with the tackles and coordinates the run game, stressed all 11 players need to be in concert with one another for a play to unfold as planned. If there’s any deviation, it can all blow up.
Michigan’s linemen have repeated their scripts, saying they're this close to correcting the small things that lead to broken plays or quarterbacks under pressure.
“You can’t do anything about the past,” Frey said. “That’s there, it happened. What you can do is learn from it. If you continue to learn, continue to grow, hopefully the growing pains become less and less. You’re trying to breed confidence, you’re trying to eliminate the little things that can screw up the timing.”
Grant Perry issued a vote of confidence Monday in O’Korn.
“One-hundred percent confidence,” the receiver said, “because he’s a great quarterback, because he’s shown what he can do.”
The offensive line has offered a glimpse of what it can do, too. But if it isn’t reversed, the losses will multiply.