WEST LAFAYETTE — Zach Gentry trotted off the field at Ross-Ade Stadium, alone, christened by cheers of adoration.
He reached the corner of the end zone — the same corner in which he scored what was arguably Michigan’s most important touchdown of the game. Fans pleaded with him, desperate for a piece of game-worn Michigan football memorabilia.
The redshirt sophomore obliged, removing one of his gloves and tossing into the first row. It landed in a teenage girl’s possession, and she instantly fitted it to her left hand — a perfect accessory to the maize Michigan shirt that she was already wearing. Then she pulled out her iPhone, held the glove next to her face, and flashed a smile for the camera.
One day ago, his glove and her photo wouldn’t have meant much. Frankly, the recipient of Gentry’s glove might have had no idea who he was at all, if not for the name on the back of his jersey.
On Saturday, that all changed.
Gentry put forth a breakout performance in a game that the Wolverines may have needed it more than ever. He wasn’t the only tight end to star in West Lafayette, as sophomore Sean McKeon led all receivers with five catches for 82 yards. Gentry himself tallied three catches for 48 yards with Michigan’s lone receiving touchdown.
But when redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight went down midway through the first quarter with an injury that ended his day, fifth-year senior John O’Korn needed someone to lean on.
Lucky for him, Gentry didn’t wait to oblige.
With just under 12 minutes left in the second quarter, the Wolverines found themselves in the red zone on O’Korn’s opening drive. After two straight carries by fifth-year senior Ty Isaac, Michigan was facing a 3rd-and-4 on Purdue’s 12-yard line.
For a different team, at a different time, a field goal in the second quarter may have been easier to stomach. With a backup quarterback, coming off a game in which four red zone trips ended with no touchdowns to show for it, it meant a whole lot more.
O’Korn took the snap. Gentry shed a lineman before streaking, wide open, across the 10-yard line on a crossing route. O’Korn made the simple play, dumping it to his tight end.
The rest was up to Gentry. He had one man to beat to the pylon, and he did, diving into the end zone for the first touchdown of his collegiate career.
“We saw the specific defense they were in, and Coach (Pep Hamilton) and Coach (Tim Drevno) made a good play call,” Gentry said. “Luckily it popped open, and I’m excited about it. Felt good to get the first one out of the way.”
There was no grand celebration — just a quick point to the cameras before flipping the ball to the ref. It looked like it was all business, a surprising fact for a man who converted to the position just roughly two years ago, around the time that Michigan was preparing to face Florida in the Citrus Bowl.
Gentry may have once been a coveted quarterback prospect, but on Saturday, he finally had a performance that looked like the culmination of years of work — complete with the big plays that helped Michigan avoid what once looked like a disastrous fate.
“It’s something that takes time,” he said. “I’ve been able to go out and execute and (the coaches have) been helping me out a lot with that.”
His second highlight came in the fourth quarter. Freshman wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones was flagged for an illegal block. What would have been 2nd-and-11 on the Purdue 16-yard line turned into 1st-and-25 on the Boilermakers’ 31.
The Wolverines may have led by four, but that wasn’t quite comfortable enough.
Gentry made his mark again, single-handedly cancelling out the penalty by contorting his body on the next play to register a 25-yard reception down the seam and record what may have been the most impressive quarterback-receiver connection of Michigan’s young season.
O’Korn put the ball in a place that only Gentry could catch it. And Gentry rewarded his quarterback for it. Even he couldn’t quite put the play into words.
“I don’t know,” Gentry said. “I just looked straight up and (O’Korn) threw a good back shoulder ball, and I was able to adjust to it successfully. And it was actually a good ball cause there was a guy inside me.”
Three catches may seem pedestrian, but not for Gentry.
It has been a long path to Saturday night, but he finally had his moment.
As for the glove, well, some teenager is going to have quite the story to tell tomorrow morning. And she definitely won’t have to explain who Zach Gentry is anymore.