There’s no debate. Over the past few seasons, Michigan has struggled to finish off opponents. Devastating losses to Michigan State, Iowa, Ohio State and Florida State have all come because the Wolverines weren’t able to hold onto a late lead.
Purdue may not be on the level of any of those teams. But Jim Harbaugh still believes he may have learned a valuable lesson about this team: it can close out games.
“They can win in the late rounds,” Harbaugh said after Saturday’s 28-10 win over the Boilermakers. “That’s a great thing to learn about your ball club. You never know quite what the character is of the team, and things get tough. A lot of people start (looking) for alternatives. Our guys dug deep and finished them off.”
Here are five (other) things we learned from the win:
1. Offensive line struggles
Michigan’s issues in pass protection were made painstakingly clear Saturday. Purdue entered the game with one sack on the season and left it having sacked Wilton Speight and John O’Korn four times.
There may not have been a more sobering image than Speight lying motionless on the turf after one particularly nasty hit in the first quarter. Quite simply, Michigan needs to do a better job of protecting its quarterbacks.
The Wolverines didn’t find success running the ball until late in the game either, and even then, they finished with just 139 yards on 44 carries. All in all, it was a fairly pedestrian day for the offensive line.
2. Michigan’s corners have been better than expected
Cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich’s candid — and blunt — remarks earlier this summer about his position group seem to have worked. The Boilermakers scuffled to 159 passing yards on 30 attempts — completing just 43 percent of their passes — and a large chunk of those yards came on gimmick plays such as a wide receiver pass, tunnel screens and throwbacks.
Purdue was unable to find any success when it tested Michigan downfield, as sophomore cornerbacks David Long and Lavert Hill had fantastic days in coverage. Long, in particular, stood out; he had several impressive plays where he was in perfect position.
This was a position group that many pointed to as a possible weakness before the season started. Saturday’s performance was yet another sign that the corners are in lockstep with the rest of the defense, which now ranks No. 1 in the nation with an average of 203.3 yards allowed per game.
3. Replacing Tarik Black may require more than one player
Led by John O’Korn, Michigan aired the ball out against Purdue’s secondary, throwing for 284 yards — on 9.2 yards per attempt — with one touchdown, a 12-yard catch-and-run to redshirt sophomore tight end Zach Gentry in the first quarter. Gentry had three catches for 48 yards on the day; his battery mate, sophomore tight end Sean McKeon, led the team with five catches for 82 yards.
Neither possesses the same type of ability as Black, Michigan’s second-leading receiver on the season who may miss the rest of the year with a broken foot. Yet both — in addition to junior receiver Grant Perry and redshirt freshman receiver Nate Schoenle, who tallied a combined 5 catches for 68 yards — made up just fine for Black’s absence Saturday.
Michigan may not have a single player on the roster who can currently replicate Black’s skillset. Until it finds an individual who can, it’ll take a group effort to do so.
4. Chris Evans isn’t going away
It would’ve been easy to count out the sophomore running back after the first three games of the year. After all, he had lost his starting job after only one game, and his replacement, fifth-year senior Ty Isaac, had rushed for an impressive 336 yards entering Saturday.
But Isaac, who left last week’s game injured, looked ineffective against Purdue, taking 10 carries for just 20 yards while struggling in pass protection. Junior Karan Higdon didn’t do much better, rushing for 31 yards on 10 carries and fumbling on a screen pass.
So Evans took advantage. He received the most carries and was the most productive back, running 14 times for 97 yards with two touchdowns. His late 49-yard touchdown scamper was an exclamation point on what was an excellent day, his best of the season, and showed that Evans definitely has more to say when it comes to the ongoing competition for carries.
5. BOLD PREDICTION: John O’Korn has reopened the quarterback competition
Harbaugh said after the game that he thinks the injury Speight suffered is a “soft tissue” problem and not anything structural; his status going forward, though, remains unclear. But even if Speight returns quickly, O’Korn may have done well enough Saturday to earn more snaps. When Harbaugh was asked whether O’Korn’s performance warranted another look at the quarterback competition, he appeared to laugh it off. Yet his answer — though a deflection — was still telling.
“He played great,” Harbaugh said. “He really did. John played a heck of a ball game, and we’re happy for him. Like I said before, thought he came into the game seeing things really well right off the bat.”
In the season opener against Florida, Harbaugh elected to insert O’Korn into the game to give Speight a chance to calm down after throwing two consecutive pick-sixes. After Saturday, it may not take that much going forward for Harbaugh to play O’Korn.