Big 10

Betelhem Ashame: The worrisome storyline of the offensive line

September 23, 2017

Michigan's offensive line fell into trouble against Purdue — a trend it will need to correct soon.

Michigan’s offensive line fell into trouble against Purdue — a trend it will need to correct soon. Buy this photo
Ryan McLoughlin/Daily

 

WEST LAFAYETTE Two quarterbacks took the field for Michigan on Saturday. One got knocked out of the game in the first quarter, while the other led the Wolverines to a 28-10 victory.

At first glance it might seem like their days were polar opposites, but both redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight and fifth-year senior John O’Korn shared a common thread against Purdue. They were let down by their offensive line.

Speight dropped back to pass, and all he could see was black.

The Boilermaker defensive line collapsed on him in seconds, and Speight was on the ground. But that wasn’t the worst hit he took on the day.

Moments later, another defender rammed into him from behind, and it took Speight a long time to get up.

The trainers helped him to his feet and Speight walked off under his own power, but clearly hurt, he never returned to the field.

The game was still tied at zero, and there were still 50 minutes left to be played.

Near the halfway point of the third quarter with Michigan down 10-7 a sequel was almost greenlit.

But just as films would bomb at the box office if they stuck to the same script, the Wolverines would have suffered a similar fate if they didn’t add a new twist to either the characters or the storyline.

O’Korn dropped back to pass, and all he could see was black.

Purdue broke through the offensive line and swarmed O’Korn. He maneuvered in and out of harm’s way, managing to stay on his feet long enough to convert a 3rd-and-6 pass. They went on to score a touchdown on that drive to retake the lead, and they never fell behind again.

In this case, the storyline didn’t change. Despite coming away with a win, that could be a disconcerting trend for Michigan.

For a unit whose central purpose is to protect the quarterback, the Wolverines’ offensive line put forth a underwhelming performance.

Purdue came into Saturday’s game with only one sack. The Boilermakers left it with four more, totaling 28 yards in losses. They also tallied four other tackles-for-loss, forced a fumble and intercepted a pass on the day, and that’s only in the metrics that statisticians keep track of.

Based on the eye test, both Speight and O’Korn were hassled, hurried and harassed by Purdue, and the Wolverines’ offensive line couldn’t stand its ground.

This isn’t a new issue for Michigan. After losing three of its five starters from a season ago, it was expected that they would need time to develop a rhythm as a unit.

But as the Big Ten opener showed, conference play won’t afford them many opportunities to work out the kinks. The Boilermakers presented a serious threat because they outmuscled the Wolverines at the line of scrimmage from the outset.

The offensive line’s one bright moment Saturday came on the same drive in which O’Korn escaped to find Perry. Set up just shy of the end zone at the 10-yard line, Michigan had Purdue on its heels. Running back Chris Evans lined up behind O’Korn, and it looked like a run play was coming.

It didn’t matter if the Boilermaker defense picked up on it. The line moved them out of the way entirely, and Evans trotted into the end zone untouched for his first touchdown of the year.

That’s an encouraging sign that the Wolverines will need to build on as they progress through the Big Ten season.

If they don’t, Michigan’s quarterbacks could spend a lot of time lying on their back.

Ashame can be reached at ashabete@umich.edu and or on Twitter @betelhem_ashame.

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