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John O'Korn (center) will start at quarterback for Michigan on Saturday night at Penn State.

Michigan football mailbag: Would changing quarterbacks affect offense?

Rachel Lenzi

Have Michigan football questions? We’ve got answers. Join us every Thursday for the Land of 10 Michigan mailbag to talk all things Wolverines. This week, we discuss Michigan’s play calling and its red-zone problems, why changing quarterbacks wouldn’t be the answer to the offensive issues, and Pep Hamilton’s job security.

Michigan’s issues on offense are play-calling and/or coaching. … Thoughts?

Many are quick to point the finger at the quarterback, who is the face of the offense. But the play calling isn’t just a product of John O’Korn. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has explained that offensive coordinator Tim Drevno, passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton, and Harbaugh have a say in the play calling. But Harbaugh has the final say.

Still, some plays have to be questioned. First, throwing the ball on third down in the rain against Michigan State in the second half — Michigan was intercepted twice.

Or opting to throw instead of giving the ball to Karan Higdon as he was gaining momentum against Michigan State.

Even some of Michigan’s plays on its final drive in regulation at Indiana were questionable, especially when the Wolverines needed a first down in order to close out the win. Instead, Michigan punted and set up Indiana’s game-tying field goal.

Here’s an analogy for the position O’Korn is in: Sometimes a boss gives assignments tasks that an employee doesn’t want to do, but has to do as part of his or her job. O’Korn is in a similar position. He’s given the plays during a game and has to execute those plays, no questions asked.

Seems obvious that swapping in quarterbacks will not fix offense. … Agree?

Again, this isn’t just an issue about John O’Korn. The offense as a whole needs to make improvements.

Michigan isn’t executing. The offensive line isn’t entirely in sync — Karan Higdon bailed out a blocking mistake by center Patrick Kugler by running the opposite way of the play. The young receivers are showing their lack of experience, whether it’s dropping passes or being a half-step away from a pass. The receivers can’t rely on the tight ends for production, even though three of the top five receivers are tight ends (Sean McKeon with 181 yards, 2nd; Zach Gentry with 134 yards, 5th).

The red-zone woes continue to be troublesome. Michigan’s first drive at Indiana burned more than six minutes, but ended with a field goal from Quinn Nordin. (That is becoming a familiar refrain.)

Here are a couple good stats to sum up Michigan’s offensive woes, a comparison of 2017 to 2016, courtesy of Fan Rag’s Adam Biggers:

The offense, as a whole, needs more consistency. It doesn’t start with O’Korn. It starts with the decision-makers.

Have you called the cops on Pep Hamilton? Theft of a million dollars. How can we possibly explain his contract?

If Michigan’s offense continues down this road for the rest of the season do you see Pep Hamilton making it into next season?

George Felekides — a loyal Facebook Live viewer — makes a good point. How is Pep Hamilton actually earning a million dollars?

Michigan is paying Drevno and Hamilton a combined $2 million a year. Michigan’s offensive numbers don’t show it.

Ryan Peeling asked about job security in regard to Hamilton. I don’t see Hamilton leaving, whether it’s by his choice or, as they say in the business, “a mutual decision.” If Pep Hamilton wants to leave, he’ll do so of his own volition. His contract is for four years. He’ll earn $1 million in each of his first three years at Michigan, with retention bonuses in his second and third years, and the terms of his contract state his salary will be $1.25 million as of Jan. 11, 2020. (Side note: Hamilton hasn’t addressed the media since prior to the start of football season.)

Hamilton fits Harbaugh’s bill of coaching requirements, including NFL experience. However, Michigan’s quarterbacks may also still be in the midst of a learning curve with Hamilton. Hamilton is a huge change from Jedd Fisch, who now is UCLA’s offensive coordinator. Personality-wise, Fisch was almost “one of the guys,” whereas Hamilton treats coaching quarterbacks like a business.

Do you think the loss of Jedd Fisch and Tyrone Wheatley as assistant coaches is part of the reason for poor offensive play?

Troy Yorton asked this on a recent Facebook Live session.

Yes and no.

In Jay Harbaugh’s first season as running backs coach, Michigan’s backs are on pace to pile up more than 2,200 yards and 18 touchdowns in 12 regular-season games. In 2016, under former running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley, Michigan ran for 2,768 yards and 41 touchdowns. Ty Isaac is Michigan’s leading running back, and he is on pace for more than 800 yards rushing. Last season, De’Veon Smith led the Wolverines with 846 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.

(Also, keep in mind that Michigan hasn’t had a 1,000-yard running back since 2011).

As for the quarterbacks, I attribute Wilton Speight’s success in 2016 not just to Jim Harbaugh but to Fisch, the former passing game coordinator who had a very strong working relationship with Speight. John O’Korn’s working relationship with Hamilton continues to develop, and he said earlier this year that learning how to work with Hamilton was an adjustment that took time.

Michigan is halfway through the season, and there’s going to be a much smaller margin for error against teams such as Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State. Even Minnesota and Maryland. The defense is in good shape. The offense needs to improve. It doesn’t have a choice — or an excuse.

Do you think the RBs and TEs get more involved in short/quick passes to keep Penn State’s defense honest?

Sean Patrick submitted this question on a recent Facebook Live session.

Penn State is good at stopping the pass — the Nittany Lions are second in the Big Ten in pass defense (167.8 yards allowed per game, behind Michigan’s 138 yards).

With recent productivity of the run game, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say this game will be less about about long passes and more about runs and short, strategic passes as a way to move the ball and sustain drives, especially for Michigan. Of its 419 plays from scrimmage, 79 this season have been longer than 10 yards, but only 29 have been longer than 20 yards.

Michigan’s offense has to be methodical against Penn State. Michigan’s offense started games against Michigan State and Indiana with long drives (against Michigan State, 64 yards in 6 minutes, 56 seconds; against Indiana, 49 yards in 6:17), and both ended with field goals.

Those drives need to end in touchdowns, and clock management will also be a key factor for Michigan.

We’ve shut down Penn State running back Saquon Barkley the last two meetings. Does this defense continue that trend?

Saquon Barkley is a multi-dimensional back, and yes, Michigan has shut him down the last two seasons. Michigan has a good chance to do so again. Michigan’s run defense ranks sixth nationally, allowing 85.8 yards per game.

In two games against Michigan, Barkley has 30 carries for 127 yards (15 carries for 68 yards in 2015 at Penn State, and 15 carries for 59 yards in 2016 in Ann Arbor). Those are very un-Barkley-like numbers.

This year, Barkley is third in the Big Ten in rushing (108.2 yards per game, 6 touchdowns), but if Michigan shuts down Barkley on the run, he’s also a threat on the pass. He has 29 catches for 395 yards and 2 touchdowns, and he’s also a solid pass protector. He’s also Penn State’s kick returner, and opened a win earlier this season against Indiana with a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh labeled Barkley as “a multi-purpose back that can do everything well.”

Michigan has to be aware of Barkley as an all-around back and has to prepare to neutralize him in multiple ways.

Bonus time!

Here are my ballots for this week’s Football Writers Association of America/National Football Foundation Super 16 poll and the Land of 10 Power Poll. I’ll include the ballots and links to the polls at the end of the mailbag each week.

FWAA/NFF Super 16 ballot Land of 10 Power Poll
1. Alabama 1. Penn State
2. Penn State 2. Wisconsin
3. Georgia 3. Ohio State
4. Wisconsin 4. Michigan State
5. TCU 5. Michigan
6. Clemson 6. Iowa
7. Oklahoma 7. Northwestern
8. Ohio State 8. Maryland
9. Miami (Fla.) 9. Purdue
10. Oklahoma State 10. Minnesota
11. Washington 11. Nebraska
12. Washington State 12. Indiana
13. USC 13. Rutgers
14. Michigan 14. Illinois
15. Michigan State
16. Notre Dame

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