Fifth-year senior quarterback John O’Korn scrambled from the pocket all game long — rolling left, rolling right and running up the middle. He gained 24 yards on the ground.
The problem for the No. 7 Michigan football team (1-1 Big Ten, 4-1 overall) was that O’Korn was never supposed to rush.
“None of them were designed runs,” O’Korn said of his many scrambles. “They were all pass plays. Guys weren’t open, (Michigan State) had good coverage or protection broke down.”
The struggles appeared most on the offensive line, where Michigan couldn’t contain the Spartans’ pressure. The Wolverines lost the battle in the trenches, and duly lost the game, 14-10.
Midway through the second quarter, Michigan State defensive end Kenny Willekes burst through the offensive line to sack O’Korn. Willekes had lined up to the left, matching up with redshirt sophomore right tackle Nolan Ulizio.
Ulizio was beat, and O’Korn was taken down.
After Ulizio’s struggles, the coaches subbed him out for redshirt junior Juwann Bushell-Beatty. The substitution wasn’t part of the original game plan, according to coach Jim Harbaugh, but the coaches felt that they had to make a change.
However, nothing really changed.
O’Korn was sacked again before halftime — Michigan State’s third sack of the second quarter. By the end of the game, the Spartans had sacked O’Korn four times for a total of 33 yards.
Ulizio and Bushell-Beatty split the duties Saturday. Despite plenty of options at the position — redshirt sophomore Jon Runyan has also appeared there — few have seemed to work.
“Those two guys — Juwann and Nolan — they compete their butts off,” said senior left tackle Mason Cole. “They’ll continue to do that. Our coaches will put the best guys out there. Whether it be Nolan in the first half or Juwann in the second half, it doesn’t matter.
“We trust Nolan out there. We trust Juwann out there. Doesn’t matter to us.”
But it should matter. The right tackle position has been Michigan’s weakest link this season. The offensive line struggles go from left to right.
Cole, a veteran and the offensive captain, lines up out left and is one of Michigan’s strongest players. Next to him at left guard is sophomore Ben Bredeson, another highly-touted lineman who molded well to the college game.
At center is fifth-year senior Patrick Kugler, who came off the bench in the past few years, and finally earned a starting role. To the right of Kugler is sophomore Michael Onwenu, the Wolverines’ best option at right guard.
And then comes right tackle. Nobody has proven themselves as the worthy starter. Cole and other teammates talked about how Ulizio and Bushell-Beatty keep competing — just as they did through spring training and fall camp.
Yet after all this time, neither has separated from the pack, and it’s showing. O’Korn simply isn’t getting much time to pass.
“Protection all this year has been a big focus for us,” Cole said.
Cole and O’Korn stood by their teammates, but it’s clear that the position is contributing to the issues of an already dysfunctional offense.
The offensive line broke against the Spartans, and it is hard to foresee an improvement when Michigan still has to play Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State.
“Part of it is on me,” O’Korn said. “I’ve got to get us in the right protection.”
A small part of it is on O’Korn. A bigger part of it is on the offensive line.