What to Watch For: Indiana

Thursday, November 17, 2016 - 8:06pm

John O'Korn should get his first start as Michigan quarterback if Wilton Speight misses Saturday's game with an injury.

John O'Korn should get his first start as Michigan quarterback if Wilton Speight misses Saturday's game with an injury. Buy this photo
Grant Hardy/Daily

 

Home games have been a cake walk for the No. 3 Michigan football team this season — the Wolverines are 7-0 at Michigan Stadium, with only one win coming by fewer than 17 points.

But after losing its first game of the season at Iowa last week and perhaps losing its starting quarterback for the season, Michigan (6-1 Big Ten, 9-1 overall) enters its final home game against Indiana (3-4, 5-5) with a lot more questions than it has had in a long time.

Here’s what to watch for on Senior Day in Ann Arbor.

1. Is it John O’Korn time?

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight suffered an unspecified shoulder injury near the end of the game in Iowa City — some reports claim it was a broken collarbone, which would sideline the Wolverines’ starter for the rest of the season.

In any case, Speight seems unlikely to play on Saturday. His likely replacement is redshirt junior John O’Korn, a transfer from Houston who many fans believed would win the starting job before the season. Despite being a backup all year, O’Korn has earned a reputation among his teammates for being a hard worker and an avid film student, and Michigan says it isn’t expecting much of a drop-off.

Because the Wolverines have won so many blowouts, O’Korn has been fortunate to see the field in six games already this season. He has been fairly sharp — admittedly playing largely against backup defenses — completing 13 of his 18 passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns. One thing that O’Korn hasn’t shown too much of yet, though, is a quality that sets him apart from Speight: his mobility. If he can replicate some of the success he had his freshman year at Houston — 3,117 passing yards and 104 rushing — Michigan should be in good shape.

2. Which running back carries the load?

Running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley continues to rotate four backs every week, and the results keep changing. Senior De’Veon Smith remains the go-to guy, and Wheatley has made it clear he trusts Smith the most. Wednesday, Wheatley cited Smith’s off-the-ball talents (including pass protection, experience and field awareness) as qualities that distinguish him.

Smith has been up and down so far in terms of statistics, though. He ran for 114 yards and three touchdowns against Maryland two weeks ago, but the Hawkeyes held him to just 28 yards on 12 carries last week. Shifty freshman Chris Evans was the team’s leading rusher with 52 yards and is averaging 7.8 yards a carry this year, but he hasn’t earned enough trust to be a lead back yet.

Wheatley has proven all year long that he’s willing to ride the hot hand, but it’s anyone’s guess which back will perform the best against an opposing defense in any given week.

3. Can the Wolverines’ defense keep up?

Over the last few weeks, the Wolverines have been sliced and diced by screen passes, with Iowa running back Akrum Wadley and Maryland’s entire offense finding tremendous success on the edge. Michigan’s defense has had some uncharacteristic tackling problems as well, further exasperating those struggles.

Those challenges could come to the forefront again this week, as the Hoosiers’ up-tempo offense has been known to give defenses trouble. The Wolverines are no exception — last year, then-running back Jordan Howard ran all over an exhausted Michigan defense for 238 yards and nearly helped his team pull off an upset.

Michigan has one of the most talented defensive fronts in the country, but its conditioning is sure to be tested this weekend. 

4. Chaos

Indiana is certainly not the best team in the Big Ten, but it may be the most unpredictable. It currently sits right at .500, one win from bowl eligibility, but the Hoosiers have put up a fight in losses against No. 2 Ohio State, No. 8 Penn State and No. 18 Nebraska.

The Wolverines have seen Indiana’s “chaos team” potential firsthand over the last few years, but they have been fortunate to come out on top every time. Michigan hasn't lost to the Hoosiers since 1987, but games like a 63-47 shootout in 2013 and a 48-41 double-overtime thriller last year have threatened that streak.

With the Wolverines looking more vulnerable than ever, the seeds for more chaos this weekend may already be planted.