Football games rarely actually depend on one play, but Saturday night, one run certainly seemed to swing the outcome.
With the Michigan football team trailing Indiana, 10-6, late in the third quarter, redshirt junior quarterback John O’Korn was struggling. All game long, O’Korn had been under pressure, and most of the time, it didn’t end well. He was sacked twice, hurried twice and tackled for loss on another play.
His feet have been considered an asset off the Wolverines’ bench, so when starting quarterback Wilton Speight went down with an injury last week, it was widely expected he would showcase them early and often. It just hadn’t been working out that way. As the game wore on, O’Korn said, passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch told him over the phone, “You need to make a play.” He did.
Moving to his left, O’Korn took off scrambling, turned the corner and started up field. It didn’t appear to be a designed run like other times Saturday, but he found a hole regardless. Fifth-year senior receiver Jehu Chesson sealed a great block outside, and O’Korn shot through the lane. As he crossed midfield, it looked like he had all kinds of space to keep going.
“I thought I was going to score,” he said. “Got tackled from behind.”
Though he was stopped at the 34-yard line, it was enough to kick-start the Michigan offense. Senior running back De’Veon Smith trucked a Hoosier defender and scored on the next play. Smith then added a 39-yard score on the next drive, and that was all the offense the Wolverines would need.
Prior to O’Korn’s run, the Wolverines were sputtering. They had just 166 total yards of offense, and even with another strong showing from their defense, six points wouldn’t have been enough. They were the beneficiaries of great field position for most of the game, but with O’Korn starting his first game in two years, the offense lacked direction, creativity and, until his long run, production.
“When John took off for that run, that’s what really sparked us,” Smith said. “That really is what got the offensive line going. It’s not like I had the whole game in control. The defense was definitely in control — they were making stops and putting us back on the field. We were just making plays as an offense.”
O’Korn said he knew Sunday afternoon that he would start for Speight, and even though no team likes to lose its starting quarterback with two weeks left in the regular season, there was reason for confidence around Schembechler Hall. O’Korn had started for a season and a half at Houston, and all spring and summer he was said to be in a heated competition for the starting quarterback job.
But that optimism seemed misplaced early. Partly due to heavy pressure from the Hoosiers and partly due to an apparent tendency to leave the pocket, O’Korn mustered just 59 total passing yards. He was 7-for-18 on the day, with no touchdowns or interceptions, but thanks to a bruising game from Smith, that was enough.
After the game, O’Korn initially said he was “not real pleased” with the way he threw the ball. But when asked to elaborate, he said that feeling was focused on one play in particular — a deep incomplete pass that was just out of reach for fifth-year senior Amara Darboh and likely would have resulted in a touchdown otherwise.
“Obviously I’d love to go back and maybe leave it two yards further to the left and hit Amara in stride for a touchdown,” O’Korn said. “But that one throw is really why I feel like I didn’t throw the ball well.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said O’Korn “did a lot of good things” against Indiana, but he also said that Speight could potentially return for next week’s tilt against Ohio State. If the Wolverines win that one, they will earn a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game and have an inside track to the College Football Playoff.
To beat the second-ranked Buckeyes, though, Michigan will need some kind of improvement under center. Ohio State is an entirely different beast than Indiana, and the Buckeyes are talented enough to bring even more pressure than O’Korn saw Saturday. So even as Harbaugh and his players expressed their pleasure with O’Korn’s performance, a nugget of truth came from the man himself.
“Luckily,” he said, “our run game and our O-line had my back today.”