Jabrill Peppers: Sky’s the limit for Michigan defense

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Michigan’s defense has gouged opponents in recent weeks and continues to dominate the national statistics, but the players say there is still room for improvement.

The No. 18-ranked Wolverines are coming off their third straight shut out, this time a 38-0 victory over No. 13 Northwestern on Saturday at Michigan Stadium. For the first time since 1980, Michigan has shutout three straight opponents, including two ranked teams.

The Wolverines beat then-No. 22 BYU, 31-0, and won its Big Ten opener at Maryland, 28-0, before upsetting Northwestern, making them a combined 97-0 the last three games.

With that victory in which Michigan held the Big Ten’s best rushing offense to 38 yards, the Wolverines continue to dominate the national defensive statistics.

In the latest NCAA statistics, Michigan is first in scoring defense, allowing an average 6.3 points a game and first in third-down percentage defense (18.8 percent). The Wolverines remain No. 2 in total defense behind Boston College, averaging 181.3 yards, and are second in passing yards allowed at 115.5. Against the run, Michigan is ranked third, yielding an average of 65.8 yards.

“There’s still room for improvement,” Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers said after the game. “We come in time in, time out with a great game plan. It’s up to us to execute. We have a lot of talented guys who take pride in what they do. When you have a group of 11 guys who are all doing their job and hungry to keep their jobs, the sky’s the limit for us.

“We’re not going to pat ourselves on the back and all that other stuff. But it’s time to go now. We’re getting into the gut of our schedule, and we still have to improve on a lot.”

Michigan’s offensive stats aren’t gaudy, but the Wolverines are ranked No. 4 in time of possession (34:47) and are 33rd in rushing, averaging 201.3 yards. They are 78th in overall offense (390.5), 97th in passing (189.2) and 67th in scoring (29.5 points).

So much has been made of Michigan’s defense after three consecutive shutouts, but coach Jim Harbaugh stressed during the weekly “Inside Michigan Football” show on Sunday morning how well quarterback Jake Rudock is playing.

Rudock, a graduate transfer from Iowa, threw for 179 yards in Saturday’s win over Northwestern. He also scored on a 2-yard run to lead the Wolverines (5-1, 2-0 Big Ten) as they prepare to host in-state rival and unbeaten Michigan State on Saturday.

Michigan was turnover-free for the second time this season, both times coming at home against ranked opponents (BYU and Northwestern).

“Each week (he) has been better and better,” Harbaugh said on the show. “He’s got a real command right now of everything he’s doing. There’s nothing in the game that can faze him, nothing anybody can say to him that fazes him.

“He is locked in and knows what he has to do. He’s been there before, he’s done it. He’s confident in the system, more than any player on the team that we have. He’s operating and doing a heck of a job.”

Jehu Chesson opened the game with a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

“That’s nice for the alumni coming back on Homecoming,” Harbaugh said, smiling. “Thanks to Jehu Chesson and the other 10 guys out there on the kickoff return team. I thought it was sharp, crisp, the timing of the blocks was A-plus-plus.”

He was asked how big an edge that return gave the Wolverines.

“Seven points,” Harbaugh said, laughing. “A lot of good momentum. I thought the fellas came out balling right from the first play and they kept it the whole game. So excited about that as a coach when the fellas do that.”

Michigan scored touchdowns in the first half on special teams, offense and defense, including Jourdan Lewis’ 37-yard interception return. Harbaugh praised the pass rush, calling it “intense.”

“We constricted the pocket extremely well,” Harbaugh said. “All those phases were just humming.”

Michigan State has dominated the series in recent years, winning six of the last seven meetings. Michigan’s only win came in 2012, the last time the teams met at Michigan Stadium.

“Next game, that’s the most important. That’s going to demand a great week of preparing. Heck of an opponent we’re playing,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll go to work. That’s our team right now (and it) is really embracing that. They like to work, they enjoy each other’s company, and they like to prepare. I believe they’ve now seen the value in it and they embrace it. We’re going to have to have our best week of practice this week.”