John Niyo, Bob Wojnowski, Angelique Chengelis and Matt Charboneau on the end of the regular season, as Michigan faces Ohio State and Michigan State faces Penn State this weekend.
Ann Arbor — This is where Jabrill Peppers always wanted to be, always dreamed he’d be, here for The Game, everywhere on the field. As a kid in New Jersey, he emulated Charles Woodson, who did what no defensive player ever had, winning the Heisman and the national title. But first, those Wolverines had to beat the Buckeyes.
They did it then, back in 1997, and haven’t done it much since. Ohio State has won 11 of the past 12 and hasn’t lost to Michigan in Columbus since 2000. It has been 10 years since Michigan-Ohio State meant this much, and the theory is, it’ll mean a lot the next 10 years, with Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer scrapping madly.
Peppers and many on Michigan’s senior-laden team won’t be part of whatever happens beyond this. But they can be the impetus, starting Saturday, when 10-1 teams battle for just about everything — a possible Big Ten title, a playoff berth, confirmation that the greatest rivalry is renewed.
It’s a lot to grasp, a lot to ask. After the program peaked in that One-versus-Two clash in 2006 won by Ohio State, 42-39, Michigan fell hard, and took a decade to get back up. And truthfully, the Wolverines aren’t all the way back up until they beat the Buckeyes.
Harbaugh has changed a ton, but to win this game as a seven-point underdog, the Wolverines need something more, whether injured quarterback Wilton Speight plays or not. That’s how this game often is won, with a blast of brilliance, like Woodson’s 78-yard punt return in ’97.
If ever the Wolverines were prepared to show everything, this is it. And if ever they had a player capable of delivering in unique and dramatic ways, it’s Peppers, who hits, runs, returns kicks and exudes energy. He’s fine taking on more and more; he’s done it most of his life, on and off the field. He may not have piled up enough numbers to fulfill Heisman hype, but he’s never really touted the possibility.
Peppers is driven by other things, and the specter of this moment has driven him seemingly forever.
“Everything is coming out of the bag this weekend,” Peppers said on Harbaugh’s radio show, suggesting there’s more yet to implement.
“We know what we want to be, we don’t have to harp on it or dwell on it. No need to add any extra-ness to the game. The game is big enough in itself.”
The Wolverines have a tremendous defense, a cornerback star in Jourdan Lewis, a batch of bruising backs and dynamic receiving options. They might not have a completely healthy Speight, whose injured left shoulder sidelined him, and they haven’t yet shown they can slow quarterback J.T. Barrett, who starred in Ohio State’s 42-13 victory last year.
This game likely will be decided in the trenches, but someone will have to make a game-changing play. Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 214 yards as the Buckeyes pulled away last season. The Wolverines need a similar jolt, and Peppers does things few do, to the utter amusement and amazement of teammates.
“He was doing burpies (stomach-rumbling pushups) on the sideline just to get warmed up last Saturday,” defensive end Chris Wormley said. “He brings the intensity, that spark of, you don’t know what’s gonna happen. He could bust out a 70-yard touchdown, a sack, a punt return. The uncertainty is good for us — you don’t know what’s coming next.”
Peppers is perhaps the most unusually gifted athlete ever to play for the Wolverines, and sometimes his versatility is used against him. Only 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, he starts at linebacker but plays all over and is second on the team in tackles, first in tackles for loss (16). When he lines up in the backfield, it no longer surprises a defense, and his offensive impact has dropped the past five games. He returns punts at a rate of 15.3 yards per attempt (best in the Big Ten), but gets fewer chances as kickers avoid him.
Harbaugh has run out of ways to marvel about Peppers, but I doubt he and coordinator Tim Drevno have run out of ways to use him. Peppers was prepared to throw a pass after taking a snap from the wildcat position against Indiana, but was chased out of bounds. Depending on the quarterback situation, he may run more read options, or may be a decoy, or may attract so much attention he’ll be muted. Peppers actually led Michigan with 29 yards rushing against the Buckeyes last season, an indication of how badly it needed playmakers.
Wherever he runs Saturday, wherever he goes now, it won’t top the journey he’s already taken. In a first-person article last year in the Player’s Tribune, Pepper wrote movingly about the pain of growing up without his father, Terry Peppers, who was sent to prison on firearms charges when Peppers was 7. Terry is out now, and Jabrill says they’re slowly reconnecting.
In 2010, Peppers’ older half-brother, Don Curtis, was shot and killed near the family’s home in East Orange, N.J., defeated by crime-ridden streets that Peppers was determined to escape. One of Peppers’ staunchest protectors was gone, and in a feature on ESPN last month, Peppers’ mother, Ivory Bryant, described how Curtis followed one wayward path, while imploring Jabrill not to do the same.
Others have stepped into Peppers’ life during his three seasons in Ann Arbor, including Woodson and former Heisman winner Reggie Bush, who text him nuggets of advice. But Peppers admits the voices he still hears most are those of his mother — who attends every home game — and his brother, who saw what Peppers didn’t see.
“He was the one that called this, actually,” Peppers said. “I can hear him now saying, ‘I told you little bro, just stick to the plan.’ When I was like 8 or 9, he’d say, ‘Little bro, you got a gift. If anybody can make it, it’s you.’ A lot of things he instilled in me, I still carry.”
That includes a blend of humility and exuberance, wrapped in a bubbly personality. Peppers hops around the field and makes flashy plays and occasionally fires back at critics on social media, including a spirited little battle with Ohio State fans earlier this season.
But when he talks, there’s less bluster. He never really embraced the Heisman chatter, and generally tries to dodge the acclaim. He dons headphones and wears his hat pulled low on campus, and heeds the advice of his idol, Woodson, who texted him these sage words: “No matter how bad or good it gets, just stay humble and keep 10 toes to the ground.”
“I don’t like the attention at all, actually,” Peppers said. “It’s a double-edged sword. I just want to play football so my mom doesn’t have to pay for college, help better my family. People are constantly at me on Twitter, saying stuff they would never say if they were in my presence. It’s just crazy to me. Like my brother always told me, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’ So it’s my responsibility to handle it the right way.”
After watching others succumb to drugs and gangs, Peppers was determined to be different. No one had any idea how different.
He doesn’t talk about his NFL ambitions, but it’d be a shock if he didn’t leave after this season, despite deep bonds. He joined the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, partly so he could have many brothers to compensate for the one he lost. Peppers may possess star qualities, but his teammates are more wowed by his physical and behavioral oddities.
When he committed to Michigan, Peppers rapped his decision on TV, mentioning his father in the lyrics. Ask teammates for a specific story about Peppers and they laugh.
From tight end Jake Butt: “Last spring ball, during a four-hour practice when coach Harbaugh first got here, we were all beat up, exhausted. And at about the three-hour mark, Jabrill returned a punt like 40 yards, and when he was jogging back to return another one, he did like a cartwheel, back handspring, backflip 360, in full pads. I was like, oh my god, I can’t even believe he just did that.”
Michigan will need some oh-my-god moments Saturday, and not just from Peppers. It’s an empty-the-bag kind of game, a place destinies and legacies end and begin.
If there’s anything left the Wolverines haven’t shown, anything more Peppers can do, now’s the time.