Niyo: Brandon Peters made wait worthwhile for Michigan

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Brandon Peters

Ann Arbor — It’s a big job, with big consequences.

But often it’s the little things that go a long way in evaluating quarterback play. And as Pep Hamilton, Michigan’s offensive coordinator, met with the media Wednesday for the first time since early August — long before the Wolverines offensive struggles began this season — that’s where he focused his attention.

It wasn’t about the big plays Brandon Peters made in his de facto debut as the Wolverines’ quarterback Saturday against Rutgers.

Instead, it was about the smaller details that made them possible. The finer points that finally began registering on the scoreboard

“Absolutely,” he said, when asked if there was a play from the redshirt freshman that stood out as particularly impressive in Michigan’s 35-14 victory.

The wheel route to Chris Evans for a touchdown just before halftime? The third-down bullet to Zach Gentry earlier in that same drive? Or maybe that scrambling heave to Sean McKeon to convert another third-and-long late in the third quarter?

Nope. It was something far less dramatic, actually.

“Finding the check-down,” Hamilton said.

Changing the play

It was Peters’ second throw of the afternoon, with Michigan facing second-and-6 from the Rutgers 38, and lined up in 12 personnel with two receivers, bookend tight ends, and fullback Henry Poggi alone in the backfield. The play-call was a four verticals concept with the split receivers on the go and both tight ends running seam routes.

Peters didn’t like what he saw when he surveyed his options after the snap “but he didn’t force it downfield, didn’t force it to one of our tight ends,” Hamilton noted.

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Instead, he stepped up slightly in the pocket, “showed tremendous poise, and checked the ball down to Henry Poggi,” Hamilton said. Peters took something off his throw, tossing a changeup instead of the fastball, the way good quarterbacks often do, and the end result was a 10-yard completion for another first down.

“And that was a big play for us,” said Hamilton, whose offense scored a few plays later on Karan Higdon’s 10-yard touchdown run.

This was a big play, all right. And whether it’s one Michigan’s coaches were ready to make or not, it’s one they had no choice to make now. Not just for the future, but for this season, as the Wolverines’ struggles in the passing game had simply become untenable.

John O’Korn’s spirited effort in the wake of Wilton Speight’s injury at Purdue offered a brief respite, but he’d completed barely 50 percent of his attempts (45-of-89) in the four starts since, while committing six turnovers — he recovered three more of his own fumbles as well — and throwing just one touchdown pass.

What took Jim Harbaugh so long to make the switch? The schedule might’ve had something to do with it. But Peters needing — and getting — the extra practice reps with the starters after Speight went down probably did, too. And as Patrick Kugler, Michigan’s senior center, pointed out, it has taken Peters some time to find his voice.

“He’s not playing quiet anymore,” Kugler said. “He’s a young quarterback, and you’re going to have some hiccups with a young quarterback. But I think he’s really confident in his play right now, and you need that in a quarterback.”

It’s what they needed from O’Korn, but he hardly looked like a quarterback who was playing with much confidence the last couple of weeks, fumbling snaps and too often declining downfield throws or bailing early out of the pocket. All of which left the coaches with little choice Saturday as the misfires and miscues continued against Rutgers.

Still, when the coaches finally called Peters’ number, “there was a true sense of … not uncertainty, but just ‘Let’s see how he responds,’” Hamilton admitted. “And for the most part, he responded well.”

Still needs work

Now then, the necessary response here is a caveat: This was Rutgers, after all. And though it’s not the team that Michigan throttled 78-0 a year ago, it’s still a team that even Hamilton politely noted “we felt like we matched up pretty good against.”

So while the offense certainly came to life when Peters came into the game — and so did the crowd, as Michigan scored touchdowns on four of his first five drives, the other ending in a missed field goal —there’s a reason why Harbaugh and Hamilton both declined to officially anoint him the starter going forward.

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The head coach says he wants to see Peters “put an exclamation mark” on things this week, as Michigan gets ready to face Minnesota under the lights. The coordinator says he wants to see more, period.

“Brandon’s still a work in progress,” Hamilton said. “He’s only played in a portion of one game. Just like a lot of our young players, having more time on task has helped him to improve.

“I don’t want to say that there’s not still a lot of work to be done, because there is. … But I think a really important part of us having success as an offense is stabilizing the quarterback position,” Hamilton added. And if they’ve done that with this latest move, well, that’d be no small thing.

Minnesota at Michigan

Kickoff: 7:30 Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: Fox/950

Records: Minnesota 4-4, 1-4 Big Ten; Michigan 6-2, 3-2

Line: Michigan by 15