'They dug deep': O’Korn steps in, rallies Michigan past Purdue

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

West Lafayette, Ind. —  It was not how John O’Korn envisioned taking over and leading Michigan.

But after starter Wilton Speight was injured and knocked out of the game late in the first quarter with an undisclosed injury, O’Korn stepped in and gave the eighth-ranked Wolverines and their sagging offense a significant boost. He led them on four touchdowns drives as Michigan defeated Purdue in its Big Ten opener, 28-10, on Saturday before a sellout of 60,042 at Ross-Ade Stadium

O’Korn was 18-of-26 for 270 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Chris Evans had 14 carries for 97 yards and two rushing touchdowns. Michigan is now 4-0 and is off next Saturday before returning to Michigan Stadium Oct. 7 to face in-state rival Michigan State.

“I’ll be ready if my number is called,” O'Korn said. “I hate — everybody knows me and Wilton are great friends — and I hate he had to get hurt for me to go in there. I’ll be ready if my number is called.

“I’m comfortable with the whole offense. The coaches have done a great job keeping me in tune with the game plan every week and keeping me ready to play. It’s cliché, but you’re always one play away. Brandon Peters was one play away the rest of the game. They prepare all of us to play. Next man up mentality.”

BOX SCORE: Michigan 28, Purdue 10

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said he was asked before the game the identity of his team.

“I didn’t know until today,” Harbaugh said. “What’s the character of the team like? You got a great glimpse of it today what it is. They dug deep and won the ballgame.”

Just before the end of the first quarter, Speight was sacked for an 11-yard loss by Markus Bailey. Speight was sprawled on his back with medical trainers and Harbaugh surrounding him, before he finally got up and left for the locker room.

“I don’t think it’s anything structural. I think it’s soft tissue,” said Harbaugh, who wouldn’t give specifics on the injury. “We’ll find out more. He’s just working through something. I’ll let you know when I have more information.”

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Harbaugh, who said he did not know when Speight will return, laughed when asked if O’Korn’s performance will be cause for reopening the quarterback competition. 

“He played great, yeah. He really did,” Harbaugh said, not answering the question. “John played a heck of a ballgame. Really proud of him. Happy for him. Acquitted himself great.”

The offense was ineffective during Speight’s first three series — the Wolverines gained 11 yards on four plays the first possession and then two three-and-outs before the injury

While Speight was being tended to on the field by medical trainers and Harbaugh, O’Korn came out and helped him up. The two spoke briefly and Speight patted O’Korn’s right shoulder.

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“All he said was, ‘Just lead the team. Do what you do,’” O’Korn said.

The first long drive O’Korn directed in the second half that gave Michigan the lead for good, was sparked by his impressive ability to escape a sure sack on third down and six. He spun out and found Grant Perry for a 12-yard gain. That kept alive a drive that covered 86 yards on 11 plays with Evans scoring his first of two touchdowns, this one from 10 yards.

That gave Michigan a 14-10 lead late in the third quarter. Meanwhile, Michigan’s fifth-ranked defense held Purdue to minus-four yards in the third quarter.

Michigan’s defense was stifling in the second half, holding the Boilermakers to 10 yards. Purdue had 189 yards for the game, including 30 rushing.

During the week, Purdue receiver Gregory Phillips told ESPN, “It’s going to be a surprise when people see us beat Michigan. I wish we played Ohio State, too, because nobody can stop us right now except ourselves.”

It’s the third time this season — a Florida running back also called out Michigan’s defense before the season opener and a Cincinnati running back said the Bearcats would 'shock the world' — that an opposing player has delivered bulletin-board comments.

"It’s just crazy to me — why give a team that’s already young and hungry locker room banter?” defensive lineman Chase Winovich, who led the team with six tackles and three sacks, said. “It’s common sense. Maybe we shouldn’t do this. I don’t want to get far into this because I get fired up about it. It definitely helped us in this game.”

Michigan built a 21-10 lead in the fourth quarter in a drive that saw the Boilermakers lose their second player of the game to a targeting call. The first was after a hit on tight end Nick Eubanks and the second after a hit on O’Korn.

“I bit through my tongue a little bit,” O’Korn said. “Got some canine kind of teeth. Even with the mouthpiece, bit through my tongue. I’ll take a hit like that if it gives us 15 yards and a first down and helps us move the ball.”

After sputtering with three penalties, Michigan faced first and 25 when tight end Zach Gentry made a spectacular catch for 26 yards to the Purdue 3-yard line. During that play, O’Korn was hit. Ty Isaac scored on a one-yard touchdown run.

With just less than 6:46 left in the game, Evans scored his second touchdown of the game, this time from 49 yards for the Wolverines for the 28-10 lead.

Entering the game, Michigan had scored only one touchdown in 10 red-zone trips. Against Purdue, O’Korn led the Wolverines to three red-zone touchdowns.

“It’s definitely a great feeling,” said Gentry, who had three catches for 48 yards, including a 12-yard touchdown catch from O’Korn for Michigan’s first score. “It was really frustrating those first three games to get down in the red zone so often and put all the weight on (kicker) Quinn (Nordin’s) shoulders, which he’s done a good job. It felt good to keep punching it in.”

Michigan had spent a considerable amount of time on its red-zone woes in practice.

“It was nice to see something that was stressed so much all week carry into the game,” O’Korn said. “That’s my only comment on that. We were three-for-three in the red zone. The work we put in all week as a team paid off.”


Twitter: @chengelis