It was an honest, inward reflection. Asked to evaluate his play through the last two weeks — performances that have yielded 256 yards and three interceptions with a 47.3 percent completion rate — fifth-year senior quarterback John O’Korn took accountability.
“I need to pick it up, there’s no way around it,” he said. “Definitely not up to my own goals and aspirations. I need to pick it up, simple as that.”
Not long after, O’Korn was asked if the postgame conversations with Jim Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Tim Drevno and passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton focus on the broader statistics of the passing game.
“I don’t think I’m very concerned about the stats and I don’t think they are either,” he said. “What they want me to do is manage the game, manage the offense and things like delay of games and turnovers can’t happen. You saw the turnovers improve at Indiana, now we just gotta manage the play clock a little bit better.
“Like I said, just hit guys when they’re open, execute the plays that are called. Our run game’s rolling, our defense is rolling. It’s on us as a unit, quarterbacks and receivers, to pick it up.”
And there it was: 94 words, and the blueprint for an upset in State College.
Everything O’Korn said was correct. Michigan’s defense still tops the national rankings. The Wolverines’ run game — after junior running back Karan Higdon posted Michigan’s first 200-yard rushing performance since Denard Robinson’s in 2012 — looks alive and well.
With a matchup against the second-ranked Nittany Lions beckoning, though, there is no avoiding it: the passing offense mustered just 58 yards and 2.9 yards per attempt against Indiana. Those stats should be concerning. O’Korn does need to step up, but it doesn’t fall solely on his shoulders and the Wolverines don’t need him to play hero — no matter how enticing that may be for a Pennsylvania native who grew up 45 minutes from Beaver Stadium and whose mom works as a waitress in State College serving Penn State players and the coaches’ wives.
More simply, they need him to take what comes to him.
Harbaugh admitted that Penn State doesn’t give up many big plays. Through six games, the Nittany Lions have allowed just three scores of 20-plus yards — all against Iowa.
Michigan, on the other hand, has lived on them. Of the Wolverines’ 13 offensive touchdowns, seven have come on plays of 25-plus yards.
The key, then, is in O’Korn’s own words. He needs to manage the game. He needs hit the open receiver. It sounds simple, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Harbaugh wouldn’t directly address if he formulates an offensive game plan catered toward avoiding risk and playing to his defense’s strengths.
“Play to win the game,” he said. “It’s every week though. I’d say it was emphasized this week, but it’s emphasized every week with our offense.”
In this case, though, playing to win the game revolves around the Wolverines’ defense. It’s centered on the run game too.
With his performance against Indiana, Higdon made the case that he can be a workhorse back for Michigan. And if he can’t, Chris Evans and Ty Isaac are waiting in the wings. Either way, the Wolverines have the capability to shorten the game against the Nittany Lions.
As for Michigan’s defense — which will now be tasked with stopping running back Saquon Barkley — it is holding opponents to just 82.1 yards on the ground per game, good for sixth in the nation.
Even with this defensive unit, though, there’s only so many times Barkley can have the ball in his hands before he burns you. And even if Barkley doesn’t burn them, quarterback Trace McSorley will.
“You’ve got to keep them off the field,” Higdon said. “You’ve got to keep their playmakers off the field, and that’s how we’re gonna thrive in this game.”
Which circles things back to O’Korn.
Missing a wide-open Donovan Peoples-Jones on a would-be 60-yard touchdown didn’t come back to bite the Wolverines against Indiana. Making the same mistake against Penn State will. Those opportunities will be few and far between.
But throwing to Kekoa Crawford in double coverage, as he also did against the Hoosiers, is asking for a turnover — the one thing that could take away this defense’s leverage.
Maintaining that leverage and keeping the game simple enough to play to the Wolverines’ strengths will be crucial in State College. If O’Korn makes his reads, hits the throws and doesn’t turn it over, all while allowing Michigan’s stable of backs to shorten the game, he will have created the circumstances needed to pull off the upset.
And his mom may have some disgruntled customers Sunday morning.
Santo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Kevin_M_Santo.