ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan quarterback John O'Korn scooted away from an Indiana pass-rusher late in the third quarter and sprinted 30 yards downfield to breathe some life into an otherwise frozen-stiff Big House crowd on Saturday. It might have been the only true highlight of the new starter’s debut performance, but it was enough.
Senior running back De'Veon Smith scored from 34 yards out on the next play, and No. 3 Michigan seized the momentum and pulled away for a 20-10 victory. The Hoosiers put a good scare into another top-10 opponent, but Michigan survived on a snowy evening and advanced to its season finale against rival Ohio State with playoff hopes intact.
Smith bailed out a largely stagnant Michigan offense in his final home game by rushing for 158 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries. Both scores and 73 of those rushing yards came on two long plays late in the third quarter and helped the Big House crowd exhale.
The relief likely won’t last long. The second-ranked Buckeyes wait in Columbus, with an equal 10-1 record and a far more daunting defense. Questions about Michigan’s offense and the quarterback who will lead it are sure to dominate a week of discussion surrounding one of the most anticipated games of the college football season.
O’Korn, who transferred from Houston before the 2015-16 season, made his first start since October 2014 in place of the injured Wilton Speight on Saturday. Speight hurt his non-throwing shoulder in Michigan's loss to Iowa the previous week. The Wolverines’ offense had averaged 48 points per game during their 9-0 start, but they sputtered against the Hawkeyes and came to a nearly dead stop during the first half against Indiana.
Indiana sacked O’Korn twice in the first quarter while he attempted to gain some comfort in the pocket. The redshirt junior lauded for his ability to beat defenses with his legs attempted three designed runs in the first half and did not pick up a yard. Pass rushes that Speight developed the habit of sidestepping the past several weeks turned into failed scrambles or sacks by the Hoosiers.
The creativity that Michigan’s offensive staff showed while piling up yards and points in the first nine games spent Saturday on the sideline next to Speight. O’Korn rarely threw the ball more than a few yards downfield on a blustery, snowy day in Ann Arbor. (He finished 7-of-16 passing for 59 yards.) The unorthodox formations that Michigan used frequently in October made no appearances. Other than one unsuccessful halfback pass play in the red zone, multifaceted dynamo Jabrill Peppers didn't see any offensive snaps until the game was in hand.
If Speight isn't healthy enough to take the field against the Buckeyes next week, Michigan and head coach Jim Harbaugh will need to come up with some new ways to move the ball consistently. Ohio State had its own breath-catching moment in East Lansing earlier Saturday, when it needed a failed two-point conversion in the fourth quarter to avoid a tie game against the 3-8 Spartans.
A week from now, one of those games will be a forgotten blip on the radar. But hindsight might turn the other into a harbinger of broken dreams. Heavy snow in the final minutes of Saturday's game whitewashed away some of the first-half apprehension, but that will all start to melt by Sunday morning.