If you were looking for drama on Saturday, West Lafayette was the place for you.
Trailing by three until the end of the third quarter, the Michigan football team was staring down the barrel at an upset in Ross-Ade Stadium. But behind a redemption story from John O’Korn that is oft reserved for movies, the eighth-ranked Wolverines managed to pull away and not look back.
Michigan escaped Purdue with a conference-opening win, and is now entering its bye week undefeated with Michigan State as the next team on the docket.
The Daily breaks down the good, the bad and the ugly from Saturday’s game.
There was a lot to like about the Wolverines’ road trip. O’Korn finally had his day, the defense had yet another standout performance and Michigan’s tight ends — redshirt sophomore Zach Gentry and sophomore Sean McKeon — solidified themselves as reliable options in the Wolverine passing attack.
Michigan’s fifth-year senior quarterback seized his moment after being thrust into a tense game following Wilton Speight’s exit. He was perfect on his first drive, completing all five of his passes for 61 yards before finding Gentry for a touchdown, and ended the game with 270 yards and a touchdown on 18-of-26 passing. He did have an interception, but it was more so the product of an unlucky bounce on a catchable ball than a poor decision.
More than anything, O’Korn helped the Wolverines exorcise their demons in the red zone — converting on every trip — and he connected on a number of difficult throws throughout the matchup with the Boilermakers. Speight, on the other hand, entered the matchup 1-of-17 in the red zone.
Gentry and McKeon proved to be O’Korn’s fail-safes, as the duo finished as Michigan’s top two receivers. McKeon finished with five catches for 82 yards, while Gentry recorded three catches for 48 yards and the Wolverines’ lone receiving touchdown.
There were concerns about who would replace freshman wide receiver Tarik Black’s production, but McKeon and Gentry left the Michigan faithful with a sense of relief for now.
And of course, Michigan’s stout defensive unit had another hallmark day. Purdue — an offense brimming with trickery — managed to score 10 points in the first half while racking up 179 yards, but the Wolverines held the Boilermakers scoreless with just 10 yards in the second half.
The performance catapulted Michigan to the top of the team defense rankings, as the unit is surrendering an average of 203.3 yards per game.
Not to be overlooked, sophomore running back Chris Evans finally had the performance that many were waiting for. He finished the game with two touchdowns and 97 yards, highlighted by a 49-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that effectively ended the contest for good.
Michigan is beginning to show an affinity for turning the ball over, as the Wolverines have forfeited possession seven times through four games.
With just under 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter, O’Korn completed a pass to sophomore running back Karan Higdon for an 11-yard gain.
The positive yardage was canceled out, however, by Higdon’s ensuing fumble. Linebacker Danny Ezechukwu recovered the ball at Purdue’s 37-yard line. Though the Boilermakers didn’t manage to capitalize on the mistake — Purdue went three-and-out — it was still a dangerous moment given that the Wolverines trailed, 10-7, at the time.
The fumble opened up the door for Evans’ breakout performance, however, as Higdon did not receive a carry for the rest of the game.
The second turnover came earlier in the game, with just over eight minutes remaining in the second quarter. O’Korn’s pass to junior wide receiver Grant Perry was picked off by Navon Mosley and returned seven yards to Michigan’s 27-yard line.
The Wolverines’ defense bailed them out, though, forcing Purdue to settle for a field goal. Again, the interception was not really O’Korn’s fault, as it bounced off Perry’s hands.
Still, while no team has been able to truly make Michigan pay for turning the ball over, that can only last so long.
It didn’t take long for Michigan to hit a low point against Purdue. Midway through the first quarter, redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight was sacked by linebacker Markus Bailey for an 11-yard loss before absorbing a second hit that crunched his neck and ended his day.
It was a scary moment in West Lafayette, as Speight laid motionless on the ground before gingerly walking off the field with the help of trainers.
He needed to leave the field to receive X-rays and never returned to the game.
While there is no official diagnosis, Jim Harbaugh said after the game that he believes it to be a “soft-tissue” injury.
There is still no timetable for Speight’s return, but O’Korn’s performance begged the question of whether or not a fresh quarterback competition would be opened.
Harbaugh did not answer the question directly, but he did give O’Korn the credit he was due.
“I thought John really played great,” Harbaugh said. “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 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.”