WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Michigan quarterback John O’Korn felt his canine teeth slice through his mouth guard and onto his tongue, and he tasted something metallic.
Blood. He spit it out.
Michigan’s quarterback had just taken a hit from Purdue linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley. As officials reviewed the play following a targeting call against Bentley, O’Korn wasn’t going to stay down. He had a game to finish.
“I’ll take a hit like that if it gives us 15 yards and a first down and helps us move the ball,” O’Korn said.
O’Korn entered Ross-Ade Stadium as an afterthought. But when Wilton Speight was taken out of the stadium following a sack by Markus Bailey late in the first quarter, O’Korn stepped in.
O’Korn took the hits. He spit out blood. He steered Michigan to its most fluid offensive performance this season, and with a sting that continued to linger in his mouth, he led Michigan to a 28-10 win Saturday against Purdue, likely its most convincing win so far this season.
O’Korn threw for 270 yards and a touchdown on 18-for-26 passing, and was intercepted once by the Boilermakers. He led the Wolverines (4-0) to 3 touchdowns inside the red zone. O’Korn outdid Speight’s performances in Michigan’s first three games.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh wouldn’t answer the question whether he will reopen the quarterback competition. In fact, he chuckled at the suggestion.
“He played good,” Harbaugh said. “He really did. John played a heck of a ball game. Very proud of him. Happy for him. Like I said before, he came into the game, seeing things really well, right off the bat and acquitted himself great.”
Whatever Harbaugh says, or doesn’t say, O’Korn’s performance has made the case for Michigan to reopen its quarterbacks competition. Again.
A bit of vengeance
Maybe O’Korn was just ready to play, after more than two years of waiting. He spent 2015 on Michigan’s scout team, sitting out a year after transferring from Houston. Many expected O’Korn to become Michigan’s starter in 2016, but Speight won the job. Speight won it again this year. O’Korn should be an afterthought by this point in the season, despite the struggles of Speight and Michigan’s offense. But as Michigan’s No. 2, he played like No. 1 against the Boilermakers.
“The coaches have done a great job of keeping me in tune with the game plan every week and keeping me ready to play,” O’Korn said. “It’s cliche but you’re always one play away, but Brandon Peters was also one play away the rest of the game. They prepare all of us to play.”
Maybe O’Korn had some added incentive. His former coach at Houston, Tony Levine — the coach who benched him in 2014 — is an assistant on Purdue’s staff.
As O’Korn steered his team up the field on each drive, he made a point to turn and gesture toward Purdue’s sideline, where Levine stood.
“I probably shouldn’t have done that, but Coach Harbaugh talked me down after a couple plays,” O’Korn said. “I’m human, but every time you get to go out and beat your former coach, it was his decision to bench me in the first place, and it’s going to be an emotional night.”
It was as if he was saying “remember me?”
He may have also been telling Michigan’s coaching staff that, as well as its fans. As Speight struggled, they overlooked O’Korn for Peters.
Being a leader
Even as O’Korn tasted blood in the fourth quarter, he continued to display command of an offense that, in its first three games, produced but struggled to create consistency.
Tight end Sean McKeon immediately noticed O’Korn’s confidence when he entered the game. McKeon immediately knew from O’Korn’s demeanor that he was ready to do the job at quarterback.
Zach Gentry watched his teammate absorb hit after hit, and spit a random trail of blood onto the grass at Ross-Ade Stadium, and realized something about O’Korn.
“That’s what a leader does,” the redshirt sophomore tight end said. “That’s a good thing, that he’s able to get the troops to rally around him. Coming in his debut, and he did a good job with that, and every time he got knocked down, he just got right back up again.”
Now, as Michigan prepares to enter the bye week, it may face a decision: Make O’Korn the starter or stick with Speight?
“It’s a great problem to have,” McKeon said. “It’s great for us. Very sad that Wilton went down and I hope he’s OK, but John did a great job coming in for him.”