It was a simple question that provided a telling response from Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.
What did he learn from the Wolverines’ 28-10 victory on a blistering hot day with 101-degrees registered on the field at the start of the game and a visitors’ locker room at Purdue that did not have air conditioning and required Michigan purchasing some fans?
“That they can win in the late rounds,” Harbaugh said after the game. “That’s a great thing to learn about your ballclub. You never know quite what the character is when things get tough. A lot of people start groping for alternatives and our guys dug deep and finished them off in the late rounds of the ball game.”
Harbaugh also learned the Wolverines can win with quarterback John O’Korn, who provided a spark Saturday, leading the team to four touchdown drives, which is one fewer than UM scored in its first three games.
Michigan is now 4-0, 1-0 in the Big Ten and is off this weekend before facing Michigan State on Oct. 7 at Michigan Stadium.
O’Korn took over the offense after starter Wilton Speight left the game late in the first quarter with an unspecified injury.
“I don’t think it’s anything structural,” Harbaugh said of Speight’s injury. “I think it’s soft tissue.”
With no game this week, Speight will have time to heal, but O’Korn’s performance was head-turning, especially for an offense that had only one touchdown in 10 trips to the red zone.
So now what?
O’Korn has clearly made a case for himself to start the next game against Michigan State. Harbaugh has always been coy about revealing the starting quarterback before the start of a season, so he likely will not reveal a starter until game time against MSU.
“I thought John really played great,” Harbaugh said. “He ran the offense well, made the big plays.”
He directed touchdown drives of 84 and 86 yards and showed off his escapability, mobility and poise during the first long drive in the second half. He escaped a sure sack on third-and-6, spun out and found Grant Perry for a 12-yard gain. That kept alive a drive that covered 86 yards on 11 plays with Chris Evans scoring his first of two touchdowns.
“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,” he said.
O’Korn was edged out by Speight, who started last season, in a tight competition during preseason camp. He played two series in the season opener against Florida after Speight threw back-to-back interceptions for touchdowns. He only had one other game appearance and was 1-of-1 for 37 yards, a completion to Tarik Black against Florida, for the season.
Certainly he was motivated by the opportunity to lead the Wolverines, but much of his on-field emotion was directed toward the Purdue sideline at co-offensive coordinator Tony Levine.
Levine, the Boilermakers’ co-offensive coordinator, was head coach at Houston when O’Korn was there and made the decision early in O’Korn’s second year of starting to bench him. O’Korn made 16 starts at Houston 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 yelled.
“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 against 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. He also had an interception that deflected off Perry. Michigan's final score came on a 49-yard run by Chris Evans.
“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.”
It was also an enormous moment in his Michigan career. He made one start last season in the final home game against Indiana when Speight was hurt.
His performance against Purdue gave the offense some life. The coaches made adjustments at halftime, as well, going to more play-action passes and unleashing the tight ends.
O’Korn never skipped a beat and smoothly guided the offense.
“I’m comfortable with the whole offense,” he said. “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.”
Hamilton, in his first year as Michigan’s pass-game coordinator, has made sure O’Korn has worked with all of the receivers as Speight has.
“We have so much depth at receiver and tight end, just across the board,” O’Korn said. “Wilton would tell you the same thing. We get reps with everybody. Even though he’s been the starter, we’ve both gotten reps with everybody. We rotate guys in a lot. In practice you kind of build up that comfortability with everybody across the board.”
O’Korn said after the game 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 to 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.”
Tight end Zach Gentry, who caught a touchdown pass from O’Korn, said O’Korn always carries himself with confidence.
“He’s really fiery,” Gentry said. “He’s an extremely competitive guy. You see it every day and every facet of practice, he’s just extremely competitive and wants to win. John’s always talking and letting us know what we need to do and what we need to think about.”
And now Harbaugh has a lot to think about.