September 24, 2017
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The circumstances surrounding it weren’t exactly ideal, and John O’Korn will be the first to admit it.
When he entered the game Saturday in the first quarter of Michigan’s 28-10 win over Purdue, Wilton Speight, the man who beat him out for the starting quarterback gig in preseason camp for a second straight year, was unfit to keep playing.
Speight had been driven from the game thanks to two separate hits by Purdue defenders, the first a sack by Markus Bailey, then a second, border-line late hit from 6-foot-4, 295-pound tackle Eddy Wilson. Neither player was flagged, and Speight walked off the field under his own power after spending several minutes on the ground being tended to by trainers.
“I had a similar situation in Houston, with David Piland, the senior quarterback that was there before me,” O’Korn said. “We were splitting time and he ended up getting a concussion. You never want to see that, but I’ll be ready when my number is called.”
O’Korn responded about as well as you might imagine for a fifth-year senior, quickly, calmly using his first drive under center to march Michigan 84 yards down the field for a touchdown. The 13-play drive saw unfamiliar targets along the way, from walk-on freshman receiver Nate Schoenle to fullback Henry Poggi to tight ends Sean McKeon and Zach Gentry, the latter of which scored on a 12-yard touchdown pass, the first for Gentry and his new position.
“He was really confident,” McKeon said. “When he came in, he wasn’t worried at all. I knew he was going to do his job. I knew he was going to execute for us.”
After the score, in a fiery moment, O’Korn starred the way of the Purdue sideline. He pumped his fist. He yelled.
It was all aimed at Tony Levine, Purdue’s co-offensive coordinator who was the head coach at Houston while O’Korn was there.
“I probably shouldn’t have done that, but coach Harbaugh talked me down,” said O’Korn, who finished 18 for 26 for 270 yards.
“I was pretty emotional after a couple drives, after a couple plays. But I’m human, and any time you get to go out and beat your former coach whose decision it was to bench in the first place, it’s going to be an emotional night.
“There were hiccups along the way, like an interception on his second drive that bounced off the chest of receiver Grant Perry, but O’Korn settled down and looked like a starting quarterback the rest of the way. He especially flourished in the second half, when he helped keep alive a third-quarter drive that swung the game.
On third-and-6 at the Michigan 18-yard line and facing pressure, O’Korn evaded a near-certain sack, recovered and found Perry for a 12-yard completion up the middle.
The 11-play, 86-yard drive saw O’Korn hit McKeon (5 catches, 82 yards) for 30 yards and Chris Evans break a 10-yard touchdown run. It marked the last time Purdue led the game, with Michigan rattling off 21 unanswered points and holding the Boilermakers’ offense to 10 second-half yards.
“John really played great,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “He was seeing things really good, from the time that he came into the ballgame. He ran the offense well, (he) made plays.”
Now attention turns squarely at quarterback and who starts Oct. 7 against Michigan State. The severity of Speight’s injury — and his status moving forward — is still unclear, but the Wolverines will have the bye week to figure things out.
In the meantime, O’Korn will return to Ann Arbor with a smile on his face. Not only did he make his case to quarterback a 4-0, top-10 team, but he also got his share of redemption. And sometimes that’s even sweeter.
“It’s been a journey,” O’Korn said. “It’s no secret, it’s been tough. Anybody that goes through that knows. The culmination of all those things. It was an emotional night for me.
“But the biggest thing is, I’m just happy I could contribute to a big win on the road. Beat the elements. Beat the team in their own house.”