John O’Korn settles old score on coach who benched him
West Lafayette, Ind. — Michigan quarterback John O’Korn could not help himself.
First, there was the emotion of taking over after starter Wilton Speight was injured late in the first quarter at Purdue on Saturday, then there was the little matter of seeing Tony Levine on the Purdue sideline.
Levine, the Boilermakers’ co-offensive coordinator, was head coach at Houston when O’Korn was there and made the decision early in his second year of starting to bench him. O’Korn had started the previous season and was the American Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year.
Several times as O’Korn led the Wolverines on scoring drives, he would look toward the Purdue sideline — “probably in (Levine’s) exact direction,” he said — and animatedly yell.
“I was just like, ‘Wooooooos’ and some screams,” O’Korn said. “No words, really.”
O’Korn was awash in emotion. During preseason camp in August, he detailed the frustrations he has experienced during his college career from losing his starting job at Houston, to competing but not winning the starting job at Michigan.
And yet, he had a newfound confidence thanks in large part to pass-game coordinator Pep Hamilton.
Performing well in the win over Purdue gave O’Korn a feeling that his college career had come “full circle.” He was 18-of-26 for 270 yards and a touchdown and led the Wolverines to three touchdowns in three red-zone trips.
“It is an emotional day for me just for things to come full circle after everything I’ve been through and him being the one responsible for making the decision to bench me at Houston,” O’Korn said of Levine. “It was an emotional day. No hard feelings. We hugged it before and after the game. We texted all week. We’re on great terms. There’s no concern about that.
“For me, I’m a competitor and it meant a lot for me to just … if I don’t play again the rest of the year, just to be able to go out and beat my former coach was a big moment for me.”
O’Korn said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh tried to calm him down a bit.
“Coach Harbaugh talked me down,” he said. “I was pretty emotional after a couple drives, a couple plays. I’m human. And any time you get to go out and beat your former coach who it was his decision to bench me in the first place, it was going to be an emotional night.”
Did it feel like redemption?
“You can call it whatever you want,” he said.
Harbaugh was impressed with O’Korn’s play.
“I thought John really played great,” said Harbaugh, whose eighth-ranked team is now 4-0. “He was seeing things really good from the time he came into the ballgame. He ran the offense well, made the big plays. The throw he hit (tight end Zach) Gentry on the seam route down the middle was a big-time throw. And he had others. Really proud of him. Proud of the whole team.”
O’Korn had an outstanding play on third and six when Ja’Whaun Bentley appeared to have him sacked, but he kept his footing, spun out and hit Grant Perry for a 12-yard gain. That kept alive a drive that went 86 yards on 11 plays and led to a 10-yard touchdown run from Chris Evans.
“It was more of one of those plays you’re kind of surprised yourself that you spun out of a tackle, and you keep your eyes downfield and find your guys,” O’Korn said.
It is unclear what Speight’s injury is. Harbaugh described it as a “soft-tissue” injury but offered no other detail.
Harbaugh laughed heartily 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.”
O’Korn, still basking in settling a score with his former coach, said he obviously has no say in the decision.
“I’ll be ready if my number is called,” he 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.”
While Speight was being tended to on the field by medical trainers and Harbaugh, O’Korn came out and helped him up. Speight patted O’Korn’s right shoulder.
“All he said was, ‘Just lead the team. Do what you do,’ ” O’Korn said.
O’Korn doesn’t know where this game will lead him, but for now, he’s happy he could contribute a victory.
“It’s been a journey,” O’Korn said. “There’s no secret it’s been tough. Anybody goes through that, the culmination of all those things, it was an emotional night for me. Biggest thing for me I’m just happy I could contribute to a big win on the road, beat the elements, beat the team in their own house and have a happy flight home.”