Let’s dive into the numbers from #4 Michigan’s 45-28 win over Colorado that are encouraging, concerning, and fascinating and discover exactly what they mean.
How do you pick one number to describe Jabrill Peppers? How do you pick one number to describe a player that shined in two facets of the game and participated in all three? How do you pick one number to describe a player that rushed for 24 yards efficiently, made nine tackles ferociously, and posted 180 return yards breathtakingly?
You could add them up to get 213, I guess. You have any better ideas?
If so, please share because 213 doesn’t even do Peppers’ performance justice. It doesn’t account for the fact that he averaged 12 yards per carry, that 3.5 of his nine tackles were for a loss, or that he returned a kickoff 55 yards — delivering us this masterpiece of a GIF in the process — and sealed the win with a 54-yard punt return:
And it doesn’t account for the fact that Peppers can shoot himself out of a cannon:
You know what? Forget the numbers for a minute. Let’s just appreciate this:
That is a man — maybe a cyborg — who sacked a quarterback before the quarterback completed his drop, rose to his feet, and leapt three feet in the air before the quarterback finished rolling over. That is just not normal. That is just not natural.
That is just Peppers.
Peppers’ impact on Saturday exceeded the boundaries of a single number. He was the best player on the field (and in the Big Ten) on defense and special teams, and he has the potential to be the best player on the field on offense if he is given more than just two touches, which is why he was named a Walter Camp National Player of the Week.
Fans of Michigan’s rivals may obsess — with delusion, I might add — about Peppers not yet hauling in an interception, but anyone with an objective perspective understands how special of a player he is. I would ask those same rival fans to discover who was the last player to lead the nation in tackles for loss (9.5) and punt return yards (173) in the same week. Good luck with that endeavor. Peppers is a one-of-a-kind, do-it-all star.
There are instances when an announcer or analyst refers to someone who lacks athleticism but makes plays nonetheless as a “football player.” That should no longer be applicable, not when there is a player with freakish abilities who excels at 11-plus positions in all three areas of the game. That is the definition of a “football player.”
Because there is no position -- or number — that defines Peppers.
This past Saturday, Michigan trailed for the first time this season.
And it didn’t take very long for Michigan to trail big.
In less than 200 seconds, Colorado jumped all over the Wolverines and out to a 14-0 lead. Sefo Liufau used a play fake to freeze Jabrill Peppers — he wasn’t perfect — and connected with Devin Ross on a 37-yard post for a touchdown, before Chidobe Awuzi slammed into Wilton Speight and knocked loose a ball that Dere McCartney scooped and scored. Michigan Stadium had been silenced, and then a nervous energy permeated throughout the crowd. Colorado would take a 21-7 lead into the second quarter, and it left many people wondering just how Michigan would respond.
Very well was the answer. After Colorado’s Diego Gonzalez hooked a 36-yard field goal early in the second quarter, Michigan took control of the game. In the final three quarters, the Wolverines outscored the Buffaloes, 38-7, and outgained them, 331-130. In that span, Michigan averaged 6.37 yards per play, while the Buffs averaged only 2.83 yards per play despite Liufau pinpointing a 70-yard bomb on one leg to Shay Fields for a touchdown. Maybe things would have played out differently in the second half if Liufau didn’t exit with an injury — all seven of the passes thrown by his backup, Steven Montez, fell incomplete — but Michigan had adjusted to CU’s RPOs and constant slants.
As a result, this was the first time that Michigan has overcome a 14-plus-point deficit since 2013 when the Wolverines rallied from a 21-7 disadvantage to wiggle past UConn, 24-21. Though that comeback gave Michigan fans an ominous feeling for what was to come, this one felt different. On Saturday, Colorado knocked Michigan in the teeth, but it always seemed like the Wolverines would strike back. It did not feel that way against UConn, where they didn’t get it together until there were about 20 minutes remaining. With about 20 minutes left against Colorado, Michigan possessed a double-digit lead.
Michigan faced adversity for the first time this season and conquered it.
However, the adversity cannot just be ignored.
Very little went right for Michigan in the first quarter. The Wolverines may have been prepared for the lightning-fast pace that Colorado utilizes, but they were not ready for the excellent gameplan Colorado constructed. The Buffaloes turned the aggressiveness of Michigan’s linebackers against them with RPOs that sucked in Michigan’s linebackers and created open space behind them for slots running slants. Michigan’s safeties failed to recognize this fast enough and punish the slot receiver, so Sefo Liufau connected with them over and over for large chunks. Speaking of Michigan’s safeties, Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill, made too many mistakes, especially Thomas, who was at least partially responsible for both of Colorado’s first-quarter touchdowns. As a result, the Buffaloes accumulated 195 yards in the first frame, 164 of which were through the air, and posted a whopping 9.3 yards per play. Michigan averaged only 2.3 yards per play in that quarter and would have been shut out on the board if not for the blocked punt. The Wolverines easily could have found themselves down, 24-0, a few minutes into the second quarter, and maybe that would have been too much adversity to overcome.
After a sharp showing against UCF, Wilton Speight came back down to earth against Colorado. Speight completed only one of his first three passes — for just three yards — and, on his fourth dropback of the game, he was drilled by a blitzing Chidobe Awuzie in his throwing shoulder and arm area. Speight later would say that he has “never been hit like that before,” and it looked that way considering the pain he seemed to be experiencing. Speight returned after being checked out by trainers on the sideline, but he was not the same quarterback. He made some poor decisions with his throws, and his accuracy was no longer rock solid. As a result, Wilton Speight was only 3-of-12 (25.0%) for 25 yards (2.1 YPA) at one point. He would bounce back by completing 13 of his next 18 passes (72.2%) for 204 yards (11.3 YPA), but he should not be given too much credit for it. He deserves some by flashing mobility and keeping plays alive by avoiding pressure, but it was more about his receivers making plays after the catch. There was Amara Darboh taking a screen pass 45 yards to the end zone or Grant Perry knifing through the middle of Colorado’s defense for a 54-yard gain. And most of Jake Butt’s seven receptions (for 87 yards) were on routes of the drag variety. Speight was not making the big throws down the field. According to Pro Football Focus, he was just 2-of-5 on passes between 10-19 yards and missed all six shots 20 yards and beyond. Speight did enough to win, but Michigan will need him to be better down the road.
An essential element of Michigan’s win was how the Wolverines found ways to score with their offense off the field. In the first quarter when things already looked dire for Michigan, Michael Jocz blocked Colorado’s punt, and Grant Perry picked up the loose football and strolled into the end zone for the team’s first points. Then, in the fourth quarter with the Wolverines holding a 10-point lead and seeking to put the game away, Jabrill Peppers fielded a line-drive punt and swerved through a horde of people for a 54-yard touchdown. These were the third and fourth non-offensive touchdowns that Michigan has scored this season after Delano Hill and Channing Stribling returned interceptions for touchdowns against Hawaii. So, in just three weeks, Michigan has as many non-offensive touchdowns as it had in all of 2014 and 2015 combined. Creative scoring is a big component of winning a national title, and U-M already has qualified.
Colorado moved the ball well throughout the first quarter against Michigan and tallied one big offensive play thereafter, but, regardless, the Buffaloes could not find success on third down. Prior to the final three minutes of regulation, they were 0-for-12 on third downs, and the only first down they had earned on third down was thanks to Mike McCray jumping the gun and being flagged for offsides. Otherwise, they would have been 0-for-13. Colorado did get one third-down conversion, but it wasn’t until there was 2:16 left and Josh Uche forced Kyle Evans to fumble the football as well.
However, this was not an anomaly for Michigan’s defense either. Through three weeks, opponents have converted only 4-of-38 third downs against Michigan. That is a success rate of 10.53 percent. That is the best defensive third-down rate in the country, and the team in second (Central Michigan) isn’t even close at 15.56 percent. This Wolverine defense may have its issues, but, when it is in position to get off the field, it’s done so.
Oh, and Penn State’s offense? 117th in third-down conversion rate (27.27%). Oh boy.
As expected, Michigan is 3-0 entering the Big Ten season. Though Colorado gave the Wolverines a challenge, they still covered the 35-plus-point spreads against Hawaii and UCF and fell just a point shy of beating the 17.5-point spread versus the Buffaloes. There are things that Michigan still must improve, particularly when Ohio State and Michigan State appear to be going nowhere anytime soon, but the Wolverines have handled their business even with three defensive starters nurturing their injuries. As a result, Michigan is undefeated and ranked in the top five of the AP poll as conference play starts up for just the first time since the turn of the millennium (Last time: 1999).
Now let the real fun begin.