Orion Sang: O’Korn jumps on chance to rewrite story

Saturday, September 23, 2017 - 8:28pm

Fifth-year senior quarterback John O'Korn filled in for an injured Wilton Speight capably, completing 18-of-26 passes for 270 yards and one touchdown.

Fifth-year senior quarterback John O'Korn filled in for an injured Wilton Speight capably, completing 18-of-26 passes for 270 yards and one touchdown. Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

 

This isn’t the prettiest offense.

There are dropped passes. There are blown-up running plays. There are botched pass protections that end with Michigan’s starting quarterback lying motionless on the turf, badly injured, before he walks slowly and gingerly off the field towards an unknown fate and further medical testing.

Consistency — that’s also been missing.

Through the first three weeks, issues arose in the red zone, where the Wolverines scored only one touchdown in 10 trips. Michigan was 3-of-3 inside Purdue’s 20-yard line on Saturday.

Against Florida, the Wolverines ran the ball 49 times for 215 yards. Michigan could muster just 139 yards on 44 carries against the Boilermakers.

And the big plays — even those don’t always come easy.

Perhaps the best example came with 6:32 left in the third quarter. It was 3rd-and-6, and Michigan trailed by three. The call was a pass. Purdue entered the backfield quickly, and the play appeared to be dead in the water.

John O’Korn had a different idea. He spun out of a near-certain sack, rolled to his right, waited patiently and delivered a pass to Grant Perry for a crucial 12-yard gain.

Led by their fifth-year senior backup quarterback, the Wolverines would march down the field that drive and take a lead they never surrendered.

“He played great,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. He really did. John played a heck of a ball game, and we’re happy for him. Like I said before, thought he came into the game seeing things really well right off the bat.

Added sophomore tight end Sean McKeon: “(O’Korn) was definitely confident. He just wanted to do a good job — do his job. Make it seem like he had confidence in us, and we wanted to help him out in any way we could. Really got the offense going and he did a great job today.

“Definitely very proud of him; happy for him. He got his shot, he made the most of it.”

After a bruising and uneven 28-10 win, we still don’t know much about the identity of Michigan’s offense. We do know, however, what John O’Korn has become — a dependable backup whose performance in relief of Speight may have just reopened the quarterback competition.

O’Korn has taken criticism in the past for his struggles to master the unknown — an inability to deal with pressure both on and off the field. In the summer, he spoke frankly about losing his confidence after being replaced as the starter at Houston. He felt like the scapegoat for things that were outside of his control; coming under that much scrutiny as an 18-year-old, he admitted, shook him. It took a transfer across the country, two years and a new coach in Pep Hamilton to get back what he had lost.

That showed in his play, especially in a start last year against Indiana — the one other time O’Korn has played extensively in place of an injured Speight. Against the Hoosiers, amidst a blizzard, O’Korn looked constantly harassed — even when he wasn’t. He never seemed comfortable in the pocket, and completed just 7-of-16 passes for 59 yards.

That game stuck out to him, even nearly a year later, for what it represented: a missed opportunity.

“More than anything, I would’ve liked to get a few throws back from that game,” O’Korn said in August. “… I think maybe I pressed a little too much, tried to make the big play a little too much instead of just letting things come to me.”

That was why Saturday’s game, during which he completed 18-of-26 passes for 270 yards and one touchdown, meant so much to him. He didn’t press. He didn’t always try to make the big play. He let the game come to him. Doing so gave him a chance to rewrite the book on John O’Korn. It gave him a chance to revisit his past history — both at Michigan and at Houston.

“We all believed in John,” said redshirt sophomore tight end Zach Gentry, “and I think that we were able to buck up and rally the troops and get it done.”

After his 12-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, O’Korn turned and let loose at the opposing sideline. He wasn’t just yelling in excitement. Later, he admitted he was yelling at Purdue co-offensive coordinator Tony Levine, his former coach at Houston.

“I’m human,” O’Korn said. “Anytime you get to go out and beat your former coach — it was his decision to bench me in the first place — it’s gonna be an emotional night.”

Once the game ended, O’Korn lingered on the field for the customary post-game TV interviews. He answered questions with a grin on his face, hands on his hips, looking happy. When it was over, he jogged off to join his teammates.

It’s a path he’s taken plenty of times before, at both Houston and Michigan. But this time, he ran off alone. He was under the spotlight, and deservedly so. The remaining Michigan fans watched as he approached their corner of the bleachers. They cheered loudly, chanting his name in unison.

It may have seemed unlikely before the season that John O’Korn would have found a career’s worth of closure on a sweltering Saturday afternoon in West Lafayette. And yet, that’s exactly what happened.

“It’s been a journey — there’s no secret it’s been tough,” O’Korn said. “I talked about it in camp. The culmination of all those things, it was an emotional night for me. The biggest thing, I’m just happy that I can contribute to a great win on the road. Beat the elements, beat the team in their own house and have a happy flight home.”

Sang can be reached at otsang@umich.edu or on Twitter @orion_sang.