Michigan’s ground game struggles against better teams
ANN ARBOR, Mich.
Michigan has failed to run the ball effectively against teams with winning records this season, leading to three setbacks.
The Wolverines averaged just 88 yards rushing in losses to Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State.
In wins over eight teams with losing records, they ran for 234 yards on average.
That doesn’t seem to bode well for the Wolverines (8-3, 5-3 Big Ten) against No. 8 Ohio State (9-2, 7-1), especially because they may be relegated to putting their third-best option, John O’Korn, at quarterback.
Wilton Speight, a second-year starter, has been out for two months with broken vertebrae and has only been cleared to practice without contact so far. Brandon Peters , who replaced O’Korn a month ago, is in concussion protocol after taking a hard hit against the Badgers.
“We practice with each and every single one of them throughout the week so that way, no matter who is in the game, we can produce,” running back Karan Higdon said.
O’Korn may be the healthiest quarterback for coach Jim Harbaugh, who has consistently praised the fifth-year senior despite lackluster statistics. In at least parts of seven games this season, he has completed a little more than 50 percent of his passes for 761 yards with one touchdown — against Purdue — and five interceptions. O’Korn played well in relief of Speight against the Boilermakers, but didn’t do enough in the following three games to keep his job.
“John has remained diligent every single week to preparation and the game plan, always sitting on a spring ready to play,” Harbaugh said.
Even though Michigan’s offense has struggled against good teams, Urban Meyer said he “absolutely” expects its offense to bounce back against the Buckeyes.
“That’s the history of this game,” Meyer said. “Both teams play their best.”
The Wolverines were clicking on offense during a three-game winning streak before losing to the Badgers in large part because they were determined to establish the run and their offense line was able to open up holes over inferior opponents: Maryland, Minnesota, Rutgers. They ran for an average of 288 yards in those games and scored 11 times on the ground. Against the Gophers, Higdon ran for 200 yards — for the second time this season — and Chris Evans gained 191 yards rushing.
When Michigan has been able to lean on its running game, it has made life easier for its quarterbacks. When the running game has been slowed down, as it was at Wisconsin with just 58 yards rushing, the Wolverines have not been able to rely on their passing game. They have thrown nearly 30 times in three losses, but have gained fewer than 200 yards passing in each of those games and O’Korn threw three interceptions in a five-turnover game for Michigan against the Spartans.
“We got to run the ball,” left tackle Mason Cole said. “In games where we’ve run the ball successfully, it’s worked out well for us. That will be another big key for this game, getting the run game going. That would take pressure off our protection and our quarterback, too.”