Orion Sang: Defense deserves better

Sunday, October 8, 2017 - 12:41am

Fifth-year senior John O'Korn quarterbacked an offense that didn't do nearly enough to win Saturday night, despite another lights-out showing from the defensive unit.

Fifth-year senior John O'Korn quarterbacked an offense that didn't do nearly enough to win Saturday night, despite another lights-out showing from the defensive unit. Buy this photo
Amelia Cacchione/Daily

It’s no secret at this point.

Michigan’s defense is good enough to win a championship.

Football, though, is a team game — as fifth-year senior linebacker Mike McCray alluded to after his team’s 14-10 loss to Michigan State.

“(When the) offense (is) doing bad, we’re doing bad,” he said. “We can’t get frustrated with them; they can’t get frustrated with us.”

It’s the type of answer you’d expect from McCray, the consummate teammate who was elected captain before the season.

Deep down, though, you wonder if there is any frustration from him, or from any other member of the defense. And if there is — that’s easily understandable.

In the second half — before an eight-play, 26-yard drive that took just enough time off the clock to make life even more difficult for the Wolverines on their final drive of the game — the Spartans had the ball seven times.

The results of those seven possessions? Six three-and-outs and one four-and-out after they elected to go for it on fourth down.

It was the definition of absolute dominance from Michigan’s defense — the type of outing that we’ve become accustomed to seeing with Don Brown calling the shots.

And yet that Herculean performance wasn’t enough, because as absurdly good as Michigan’s defense was, the offense simply could not execute.

After the game, McCray said that coming out of halftime, his unit’s goal was to give the offense the ball as many times as possible.

Here’s what the Wolverines did with those eight possessions: three-and-out, 33-yard touchdown drive, interception, interception, interception, punt, punt and a desperate 43-yard drive that ended with the ball harmlessly falling to the turf.

It was a sight for sore eyes, and it was a sight that will haunt Jim Harbaugh and his offensive coaching staff for the rest of the week, perhaps for the rest of the season. This, after all, was an easily winnable game — and the Wolverines even had the blueprint for doing so.

Coming out of halftime faced with a 14-3 deficit, Michigan began a war of field position. The defense kept the Spartans pinned deep, and when a Jake Hartbarger punt was returned to the Michigan State 33-yard line, the Wolverines pounced.

After yet another three-and-out forced by the defense, the offense looked poised to build on its prior success. Michigan fed junior running back Karan Higdon four consecutive times, and he turned those carries into 23 yards and two first downs.

And then the Wolverines tried to pass.

They were called for holding. They called another pass, and O’Korn scrambled for eight yards. They called another pass — and O’Korn threw it to the other team.

“When we got momentum going,” Harbaugh said, “we turned it over.”

Michigan stuck with the pass stubbornly, like a puppy might do with an old chewed-out toy. It called for passes even amidst what O’Korn deemed a “torrential downpour,” which certainly didn’t make life any easier for him. And it got the same result nearly every time — a bad one.

The Wolverines ran 13 pass plays in the second half before a desperate final drive where Michigan State played things safe and allowed easy completions underneath. On those 13 plays, O’Korn completed four passes. He was sacked and forced to scramble once each. He threw three interceptions.

O’Korn, as good of a teammate as any, didn’t give much away after the game.

“I wasn’t upset with any of the calls at all,” he said. “I was just upset with myself.”

But, like with the defense, any frustration would’ve been understandable. After all, he himself commented on the difficulty of throwing in the rain.

There’s merit in debating whether the players simply have to execute, or whether they were put in a position to succeed Saturday night. There are now many more questions than answers facing this team after such a dispiriting loss.  

And yet, one thing was devastatingly clear: Michigan’s defense deserves better.

“You can’t expect to win,” O’Korn said, “when you turn the ball over that many times.”

Truer words have never been spoken.