Wojo: Peppers covers holes in Michigan's game
Ann Arbor — The best development for Michigan is, Jabrill Peppers is capable of doing just about anything on a football field. The disconcerting development is, the Wolverines might need him to do just about everything.
There weren’t any Hail Mary’s, just a bunch of Hail No’s as Michigan fell behind by two touchdowns before rallying for a 45-28 victory against Colorado on Saturday. The Wolverines are 3-0 and ranked in the top four, but they have some concerns. They also have this: Concern concealers.
Peppers is uniquely gifted, capable of covering a lot of ground and a lot of holes. When Michigan was in trouble, and Wilton Speight was struggling, and the Buffaloes were hitting big plays to build a 21-7 lead, Peppers just kept popping. He finally got the punt-return touchdown he’d been craving, hitting a 54-yarder with 11:27 left, but that was merely a punctuation mark to a monstrous performance.
Peppers finished with 204 total yards, 99 on punt returns. He also was second on the team in tackles with nine, including a sack and 3.5 tackles for loss. From his hybrid linebacker position, he poked his head into Colorado’s backfield again and again, and when he hit, the Buffaloes felt it.
“Above it all, Jabrill Peppers proved he was the best player today,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “We don’t win that game without Jabrill Peppers. It also was a great team effort, fighting back, enough good players making enough good plays.”
The Wolverines have plenty of good players, but with the Big Ten season arriving, they’ll need more good plays. Tight end Jake Butt was excellent again, catching seven passes and serving as Speight’s safety net when the Buffaloes took away the deep threats.
Michigan made plenty of mistakes, from missed field goals to missed defensive assignments to a brief rash of penalties, but Harbaugh wasn’t interested in belaboring them. He knows defenses are stacking the line and refusing to let Michigan run, which puts pressure on Speight and his senior receivers.
The Wolverines’ vaunted defense surrendered big plays early, but after the first quarter, the line started mauling, and eventually knocked Colorado’s dangerous senior quarterback, Sefo Liufau, out of the game. The Buffaloes had 195 total yards in the first quarter and only 130 the next three quarters. Defense will remain the bedrock of this team while Speight develops, and he was forced to develop in a hurry.
It helped that Colorado’s kicking game was comically atrocious, with one punt blocked, one botched and one returned for a touchdown. It helped, too, that Speight, after getting clobbered early, battled through the pain. He finally settled down after throwing a swing pass that Amara Darboh turned into a 45-yard touchdown late in the first half to give Michigan a 24-21 lead.
Speight has to be more accurate — 16-for-30 for 229 yards — but he didn’t throw an interception, although he tempted fate a few times. At some point, Speight will be required to do more, but he and the Wolverines survived their first bout of adversity. He had the wounds to show it afterward, an ice pack strapped tightly to his right shoulder.
Speight said he was fine, and no, he never thought he was in danger of being pulled by Harbaugh. He also appreciated his brief, uplifting pregame conversation with Tom Brady, in town as one of Michigan’s honorary captains. But like most of the players, Speight was mostly relieved, and happy to re-live Peppers’ exploits.
“He’s the best athlete, pound for pound, in college, probably in any sport,” Speight said. “He’s a freak. Every single thought in his head is about destroying the opponent. There’s not many people like him. He just wants to chop a guy in half.”
Peppers' impact is felt in so many areas, and likely will increase on offense (he carried twice for 24 yards). In the third quarter, with Michigan only leading 31-28 and Colorado facing a second down from the Wolverines’ 29, Peppers blitzed and buried quarterback Steven Montez, knocking the Buffaloes out of field-goal range.
That was a drive-changer, even a game-changer. And yet, every time you looked up, Peppers was back on the field, barely breathing hard. He felt it after the game, though, and before the press conference began, he and Butt were laid out on the floor in full uniform, happily discussing how sweet and arduous it was.
“You don’t even think about being tired, especially when you’re down,” Peppers said. “The level of exhaustion in practice is definitely greater, in my opinion.”
That may be true, and there’s no way the workloads for guys like Peppers and Butt will be reduced anytime soon. But would it make everyone feel a little better about the Wolverines’ lofty goals if they didn’t need to lean so much on certain stars? Sure.
“It wasn’t our best week of practice, but we found a way to get it done,” Butt said. “If we want to be the best team in the country, or one of the best teams in the country, we gotta practice like it. We knew the first two games, we never got punched in the face. I was proud of the way we bounced back.”
It was a revealing day, in positive ways and shaky ways. At least the Wolverines know, when they get in trouble, they have a few stirring ways to get out of it.