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Michigan Football Rewind: The Freshmen Find their Footing

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Photo Credit: MGoBlog

Michigan’s game against Rutgers on Saturday was exactly what it should have been: a total domination. Well, at least for the last three quarters it was. Michigan finished with more than twice as many total yards, first downs, and, most importantly, points than Rutgers. But not only that, the Rutgers game served as a time to resettle for the Wolverines after a terrible performance against the Penn State Nittany Lions. They looked like a complete team with an identity and purpose for the first time in weeks. And, youth did not seem to hinder Michigan at all as freshmen played impactful roles in all facets of the game.

  • Redshirt freshman running back Kareem Walker totaled 34 yards and a touchdown on 6 carries.
  • True freshman Nico Collins caught his first collegiate pass for 12 yards.
  • True freshman Aubrey Solomon was a constant on the Wolverines defense throughout the day, in which he made 3 total tackles, 2 of them solo, and shared a tackle for a loss.
  • True freshman Ambry Thomas showed why he replaced Kekoa Crawford as Michigan’s kickoff return specialist, gaining 59 total yards with a long of 32.
  • True freshman O’Maury Samuels closed out the game for the Michigan offense with 3 carries.
  • And true freshman fullback Ben Mason was the hardest hitting player on the field throughout the game. Just watch 42’s lead blocking on these two touchdown runs:

The Karan Higdon touchdown:

And the Kareem Walker touchdown:

But, of course, the freshman everyone is now talking about and who truly turned the tide for Michigan’s offense against Rutgers was redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peters.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Peters was nothing short of electrifying after he replaced senior quarterback John O’Korn in the second quarter. His final stat line was 10 completions on 14 passes for 124 yards and a touchdown. Sure, those numbers are not phenomenal. And, yes, the offensive scheming was conservative and simplified; similar to the style that helped John O’Korn thrive when he came in against Purdue. But, there were notable changes from Peters’s presence in the huddle that made every Michigan faithful excited.

First, the whole team seemed to respond with enthusiasm and fortitude after the quarterback change. The defense re-composed itself, the offensive line had its best game of the season, and the running back corps became unstoppable. The football machine Jim Harbaugh and Co. have been building over the past three years began grinding its gears again.

Even more importantly, what really stuck out about Brandon Peters was his composure in running the offense. For months, media and fans had been hearing that although Peters is talented, he has struggled in commanding the offense and staying consistent. But when he took over the starting job in a tied game, Peters never seemed to flinch. And his first three drives leading the Michigan offense resulted in touchdowns.

But coming into a tied game was not the only time Peters was tested against Rutgers and responded well. On 1st and 10, with 38 seconds left in the second quarter, Michigan was trying to take a two-possession lead over Rutgers when Brandon Peters threw a strike across the middle of the field aimed at Grant Perry. But the ball never reached Perry. Instead, it hit a Rutgers’ defender in the hands and was nearly returned for a pick-6. It was Peters’s worse throw of the game and the most intriguing moment for viewers to see how he would respond. The next play he threw a beautiful, short fade to Chris Evans on wheel-route for a touchdown. And his next play after that, Michigan’s first offensive play of the second half, was Peters’s best throw of the whole game. Watch below:

Peters demonstrates excellent pocket presence. He stays composed long enough to go through all of his reads. When he sees that no receivers are open and feels pressure from a defensive lineman, Peters rolls out to his right to extend the play. Even with Rutgers players running straight at him, Peters delivers a perfect strike on the run to Ty Isaac for the first down. This play sold me on Peters’s technicalities and raw talent. It is the kind of throw a QB1 needs to make to keep an offense moving, and one that John O’Korn, and even Wilton Speight earlier in the season, struggled to complete.

And although the offensive scheme was made easier for Peters, he demonstrated that he could run any kind of formation more effectively than John O’Korn. By the end of the game, Peters took 37 snaps under center and 8 from the shotgun, with 10 of his passes from under center and 4 from shotgun. Peters had successful passes in the Power-I formation, with a single set back, in pro set, in an empty backfield with five receiving targets, and more. Although the passing schemes were conservative, the offense did seem to open up quite a bit. Having an extremely effective running attack helps do that too. By the end of the game, 10 Wolverines caught passes. Brandon Peters hit 9 of those targets; John O’Korn only connected with two.

Photo Credit: MGoBlog

The offensive coaching staff definitely took notice of Peters’s ability. In the first half, Peters threw only one pass that was on a down with more than 6 yards needed for the first (not counting 1st and 10s). It was the 2nd and 10 that he hit Chris Evans for the TD. He also only threw on one third down in the entire first half, which was a 3rd and 3. Peters completed the pass to Zach Gentry for the first.

In the second half, Peters threw five passes on downs with more than 6 yards needed for the first (again not counting 1st and 10s). His last four passes of the game: 3rd and 11, 3rd and 8, 3rd and 6, 4th and 3. He completed 3 of those 4 passes with two of them being for a first. The 4th and 3 was the poorly thrown pass to McKeon.

This change in when Harbaugh and Co. wanted Peters to pass really shows the coaching staff increasingly trusting him to progress the offense down the field in key situations, which was absolutely not happening with JOK. In fact, the opposite was occurring; the ball was given to Higdon more and more on long plays for a first. Hopefully all these trends continue, and we finally see a Michigan offense move down the field because of quarterback play, not despite it.

Here is the pass on 3rd and 11 that Peters completed for the first down. Many similarities in pocket presence and ability that I commented on in the video above. Also, you see a terrific adjustment and catch by tight end Sean McKeon:

Now, before we get too far ahead of ourselves in naming Brandon Peters the best possible quarterback moving forward, he did show some negative attributes in the game. First, like John O’Korn, Peters struggled in hitting the deep ball throughout the game. He way underthrew Sean McKeon in an out-route to the right, he overthrew Tyrone Wheatley Jr. in the third quarter, and overthrew Donovan Peoples-Jones on a fade down the left sideline (see video below). And not only did Peters not put the ball in a place where DPJ could fight for it, notice that he also missed Zach Gentry breaking free in the middle of the field. Peters wanted to throw that pass to DPJ before the ball was even snapped, so he threw it before going through his progressions. A mistake he will hopefully improve on.

Also, as many people have already noted, John O’Korn also looked like a significant improvement when he replaced the injured Wilton Speight against Purdue. So, one game is not enough to determine if Peters is the real deal. But, after the past three games with O’Korn leading the offense, I do not see how playing Peters is not the right move going forward, even if level of play remains about the same as it did with O’Korn. At least Peters will be gaining experience for next year while O’Korn is on his way out. And, this is not all a knock on O’Korn. There were several significant factors that led to Michigan’s dismal offensive performances against Michigan State, Indiana, and Penn State, and JOK was not always the main reason. For instance, the Michigan offensive staff could have done more to utilize O’Korn’s strengths, namely his legs.

But, the Michigan offense under Coach Harbaugh was never meant to be and never will be one that operates off of a quarterback’s legs. It is designed to have a smart quarterback with a great arm at the helm. So, having Brandon Peters, a natural pro-style quarterback, as starter just makes more sense and will better lead this offense to what it is supposed to be.

Next Saturday’s game against Minnesota will be a major test for Brandon Peters. Will he continue to lead the offense or falter like O’Korn did against Michigan State? Every unit on the Michigan offense will need to play at their best to help Peters transition to competing against a much better defense. Until then, the Michigan fandom will unfortunately need to wait with great anticipation. At least in the meantime, we are all smiling about this team for the first time in weeks.