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Inside the Numbers: Brandon Peters’ Perfect Passing Downs

When Michigan’s offense fell behind schedule vs. Rutgers, Brandon Peters came to the rescue.

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

Have we discussed Brandon Peters enough this week?

No? Okay, good.

Peters has been the talk of the town after making his (figurative) debut against Rutgers on Saturday. Inserted midway through the second quarter with Michigan’s offense spinning its wheels and the score knotted at seven apiece, Peters led the Wolverines to three straight touchdown drives and a comfortable 35-14 victory.

Notwithstanding the quality of the opponent, it was an encouraging performance by the highly-touted redshirt freshman. Michigan had received very little from the quarterback position (other than turnovers) and had seen its passing game collapse into an oblivion the previous three games (50.6 cmp%, 140.7 YPG, 5.1 YPA, 0:3 TD:INT ratio; 86.1 QB rating). It appeared as if that would continue for a fourth straight game when John O’Korn opened against Rutgers by completing just 3-of-6 passes for 13 yards and an interception. However, Jim Harbaugh heard the pleas of Michigan fans far and wide and gave Peters his shot to turn things around, and Peters did not waste it.

Now, Michigan was not in a position where it needed to rely heavily on Peters’ arm. He was not asked to go onto the gridiron and sling the ball around like he is Tom Brady, Drew Brees, or Matthew Stafford. Michigan’s game plan was to pound the ball on the ground. The Wolverines called a run on 51 of 71 plays (71.8% run rate), and the plan did not shift much once O’Korn (76.9% run rate) was pulled for Peters (68.9% run rate). And it did not have to shift much because Michigan ran roughshod over Rutgers. Removing a 13-yard loss which was the result of O’Korn letting a good shotgun snap slip through his hands, the Wolverines accumulated 347 rushing yards on 50 carries for an average of 6.94 YPC, gained at least five yards on half of their runs (national average is 38 percent), and had a successful run on 62 percent of their carries (national average is 41 percent). This was a beatdown which saw Karan Higdon (158 yards, 8.8 YPC), Ty Isaac (109 yards, 7.8 YPC), Kareem Walker (34 yards, 5.7 YPC), and Chris Evans (29 yards, 5.8 YPC) run well behind a developing offensive line (at run blocking at least).

As a result, Michigan did not fall behind schedule too often against Rutgers. The Wolverines generally were able to stay ahead of the chains and force the Scarlet Knights’ defense to respect both the run and the pass. This was a key to Michigan’s win on Saturday, and it will continue to be a key to Michigan winning games this season.

However, no team will always be able to stay ahead of the chains, and it’s in those moments when a team needs its quarterback to step up and make a play. Those moments are referred to as “passing downs.” A passing down is defined as: (1) 2nd down with eight-plus yards to go; or (2) 3rd or 4th down with five-plus yards to go. Offenses are more likely to air it out on these downs, which gives defenses an edge.

Surprisingly, few defenses have had a bigger edge on passing downs than Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are 10th in Passing Down S&P+ and 17th in Passing Down Success Rate, and it showed when O’Korn was in the game. Michigan chose to run the ball more than pass it on passing downs (42.9% pass rate) and had zero success when it put the ball in O’Korn’s hands. He dropped back three times. Only one was completed (a seven-yarder on 3rd & 16), and the other two fell incomplete on his final snaps of the game (2nd/3rd & 9). O’Korn simply could not make the play, and Michigan thus had to punt it away.

Peters, on the other hand, did make the play. Every time in fact.

Overall, Peters was 10-for-14 (71.4%) for 124 yards (8.9 YPA), which is excellent, but on passing downs, he was perfect, hitting all five throws (100%) for 65 yards (13.0 YPA):

1. 2nd & 10 (0:29 2Q): 20-Yard Touchdown to Evans

2. 2nd & 11 (6:20 3Q): 15-Yarder to Grant Perry

3. 3rd & 11 (4:56 3Q): 15-Yarder to Sean McKeon

4. 3rd & 8 (1:52 3Q): 7-Yarder to McKeon (Set Up 37-Yard Field Goal)

5. 3rd & 6 (8:22 4Q): 8-Yarder to Higdon

That’s a touchdown (Michigan’s first through the air in 191:11 of game time, not including the untimed overtime against Indiana), three first downs, and a completion just shy of the marker that gave Harbaugh the option to go for it on 4th & 1 or attempt a 37-yard field goal rather than one from 44 yards away (or worse). All of these led to points, extended drives, or put Michigan in a position to extend a drive.

That’s precisely what Michigan wants from its quarterback in these situations.

Now, these weren’t all the result of brilliant playmaking by Peters. He benefited from play calling (hello, wheel route!) and effort made by his receivers after the catch (hello, Perry and Higdon). But there was some brilliant playmaking. The 15-yarder to McKeon where Peters felt instant pressure from behind, flowed to his right, threw off balance with a defender in his face, and put enough thrust on the ball to get it there in time was a “wow” moment. It was a sign Peters can give Michigan a spark through the air.

It is important, however, not to overreact to one performance. O’Korn was tremendous in relief against Purdue only to sputter in his following three starts. It is possible that Peters’ game against Rutgers was just an aberration, or that defenses will be better prepared for his tendencies now that they have film of him to watch. Peters still needs to prove that he can make these plays on passing downs consistently down the stretch (or not underthrow a wide-open receiver on 4th & 3 when the outcome is in question).

But this was a great start for the young quarterback. He provided Michigan hope that it can have a two-dimensional offense where the ground game shoulders the burden of the weight and the quarterback can bail out the offense when it needs him to. That will be Michigan’s best chance for offensive success and Peters has shown enough that he deserves his first career start against Minnesota, which Harbaugh said is “likely.”

If Peters excels again on passing downs against the Gophers, who are 32nd in Passing S&P+ and 23rd on Passing Downs S&P+, it will be further data that Peters is for real.

And further reason to spend another week talking about Peters.