Michigan final thoughts: Is Blake Corum’s knee ‘okay’ for Ohio State?

ANN ARBOR, Michigan — In honor of Michigan’s 11-0 loss to Ohio’s 11-0 loss, 11 final thoughts on the Wolverines’ 19-17 win over Illinois:

1. The topic on everyone’s mind after the game was the health of running back Blake Corum, who injured his knee late in the first half and had a carry after halftime.

Corum spent Sunday afternoon distributing turkeys to families in Ypsilanti, Michigan, as part of a Thanksgiving fundraiser he started last year. Corum bought 150 turkeys with his name, image and likeness gain and partnered with community organizations to distribute them at two locations.

Corum didn’t divulge many details about his injury but did address it shortly afterwards.

“The knee is fine,” he said. “It gets better. I’ll be back.” When asked if he underwent further testing on Sunday, he reiterated, “It’s fine.” As for Saturday’s game against Ohio State, he said, “I’ll be there.”

Coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game that Corum’s knee was “structurally good”. That’s no guarantee he’ll be able to play against the Buckeyes, or that he’ll get close to his usual self if he does. It’s a positive sign that Corum has been cleared for the return against Illinois, but it’s hard to tell much from a carry.

“It felt good,” Corum said. “I think it was a five-yard carry. It feels good. The coaches just said, ‘You’re good.’”

How much can Michigan realistically expect from Corum this week? That’s the question everyone will be asking and we may not get the answer until kick-off.

2. College football programs spend millions of dollars administering their 85 scholarships, recruiting the best players and building a roster that can withstand anything. Yet every year there comes a moment when someone’s season boils down to a chunk of a fourth-string walk-on.

That was the case for Michigan in the fourth quarter against Illinois. Without Corum and Donovan Edwards, the Wolverines relied on freshman running back CJ Stokes and walk-on Isaiah Gash, son of former NFL fullback Sam Gash.

Gash has not had a Saturday reception in Michigan for three years. He had a crucial drop in the fourth quarter when the Wolverines were in the red zone trying to get a touchdown going forward. But when the Wolverines went from a crucial fourth deficit with less than a minute to go, quarterback JJ McCarthy didn’t hesitate to look Gash’s direction.

“I have 100 percent faith in every single man on this team,” McCarthy said. “He obviously doesn’t want to drop that ball. I know the next opportunity he gets to make that play, he’ll come back.”

3. In fourth and third, Gash spread wide and jogged in motion like he was bumping into the formation. He stopped when it cracked and drifted into the apartment. Tight end Colston Loveland cleared his defenseman – apparently to the chagrin of Illinois coach Bret Bielema – and Gash was wide open for an easy reception.

That was a game Michigan installed specifically for Corum last week, Harbaugh said. Despite Gash’s earlier downfall, Michigan had the confidence to call his number in the situation and he delivered.

“It was a Blake play through and through,” Harbaugh said. “Blake has the most reps with it. Blake was the guy we wanted for this play. I believe Isaiah had a practice rep for this piece. We talked about it in passing. He said he had it, he could run it. He did a fantastic job in the game.”

4. Gash’s reception extended the drive and gave Jake Moody the chance to score the first successful field goal of his career. Moody, last year’s Lou Groza Award winner, is in his fifth season and before that final kick had made 64 of his 78 attempts, including 51 of 56 within 40 yards.

Moody is known for his nerves of steel, and the pressure of the moment — swirling wind, his first kick to win it, Michigan’s season on the line — hasn’t fazed him.

“I treated it like any other kick,” said Moody, who was 4-on-4 on field goal attempts. “I didn’t think, ‘Oh my god, I have to do this, I can’t miss it.’ I go out, find my seat, trust my step, trust the snap and the hold, and everything went according to plan.”

5. The Moody’s winner put him past Garrett Rivas for the most field goals in program history. It also put him past Tyrone Wheatley and third in the school’s career scoring list with 330 points, 24 behind Rivas for the school record.

With at least two games remaining, Moody has a chance to hit the trifecta and become Michigan’s career leader in field goals made, scoring and field goal percentage. He currently stands at 82.3 percent, trailing only Bob Bergeron’s school record of 82.9 percent.

“I’ve watched Michigan football since I was a kid,” Harbaugh said. “I’m a pretty decent historian for Michigan football and I nominate him for his legendary status.”

6. One of the key moments of the game occurred early in the fourth quarter when Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito mishandled a snap in third and eighth, resulting in a punt and a 40-yard return from Ronnie Bell.

The Illini had made very few mistakes up to this point. They were near midfield and another shot on target would have put Michigan in serious trouble. Bell’s return gave Michigan a great field position, and although the Wolverines couldn’t redeem it with a touchdown, Moody’s field goal eased some of the pressure.

Bell only returned punts because AJ Henning didn’t play. Bell tore his cruciate ligament on a punt return last season, so perhaps it was fitting that his last game at Michigan Stadium included a crucial return.

“When I broke the first (tackle), I knew whoever hit me the first time it was time,” Bell said. “I was just trying to get as many yards as possible and get up there and just run.”

7. It’s hard to imagine what was going through his mind as center Olu Oluwatimi took to the field on Saturday. A transfer from Virginia, Oluwatimi was hit hard by news of the shooting that killed three Virginia players. In addition, Oluwatimi’s father underwent successful surgery last week to remove a brain tumor, Harbaugh said.

“All of that was going on for Olu this week,” Harbaugh said. “I think back to that age. There was no way I could have dealt with that, but he has the strength of 10 men.”

8th. The Wolverines wanted to take a moment to enjoy their Senior Day win before focusing on Ohio State, and that’s fair enough. But Ohio State’s game has been building on the horizon for a while, and now it’s the only thing on anyone’s mind for the next five days.

As we established last week, the passing game is what it is at this point. Maybe the Wolverines will do what South Carolina did Saturday night and pull off a performance out of thin air against an elite team, but I wouldn’t bet on it. It’s more likely Saturday’s game will boil down to whether Michigan can blast through a couple of explosive games to complement what the Wolverines plan to do on the ground.

McCarthy had two throws that could have changed the tone of Saturday’s game. One was a shot at Andrel Anthony in fourth when McCarthy thought he had a free game. The coverage wasn’t bad but Anthony got his hands on the ball and should have come down with it. If McCarthy had completed that pass and another to a wide-open loveland in the red zone, he would have had two touchdowns and more than 250 passing yards.

There’s no magic solution to passing, but there were a few viable plays in each game that could change this narrative a bit. Cade McNamara hit those shots against Ohio State last year. If McCarthy can do the same, Michigan has a chance. If not, it could be a long day.

9. It’s clear the Wolverines are sick of being asked about their passing game. The same thing happened last year when the Wolverines were considered too limited to beat a team like Ohio State until they did.

This year’s offensive had the potential to become more dynamic, but the passing game stagnated in the second half of the season. Eventually, that untapped potential looks like a hard ceiling. The Wolverines are optimistic their passing game will be up to the task, and at this point, it’s just that: optimism.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s not there,” Bell said. “It’s the least thing we miss.”

10 The chances of the Big Ten getting two teams into the college football playoffs improved slightly with Tennessee’s loss to South Carolina. It’s hard to imagine Michigan-Ohio State’s loser coming before a one-losing USC team that wins the Pac-12, and it would be fascinating to see what the committee does with a one-losing Clemson team , which wins the acc. This is the time of year when surprises come and while most CFP contenders have survived Saturday’s horrors, there is still plenty of football left.

A competitive game in Columbus is the Big Ten’s best chance of getting two teams into the CFP. Maybe I’m in the minority, but if the Wolverines lose to Ohio State, I’m not sure a CFP rematch against Georgia is clearly preferable to playing in the Rose Bowl. I’m into Pasadena though.

Option A for Michigan is to beat Ohio State, win the Big Ten and earn a top two seed, which likely means avoiding Georgia in the semifinals. Everything else is a backup plan.

11. As a final thought, it’s worth reflecting on how much things have changed in two years. At the end of the 2020 season, Michigan was 2-4 with a roster so depleted by injuries and COVID-19 that The Game had to be canceled. At the time, Michigan was so far behind the Buckeyes that it seemed like it would be a multi-year process, if it ever happened at all.

The Wolverines are 23-2 since then, including last year’s 42-27 win over Ohio State. Some of those wins were ugly, much like Saturday’s game against Illinois, but the Michigan program from two years ago didn’t have the resilience to keep winning those games. This one does.

“Everything about it is the culture that the players set and the culture that Coach Harbaugh infuses into the building every day,” Bell said. “It’s completely postponed, man. Those who didn’t make it to 2020 are a whole different team now.”