Karan Higdon ran in for a touchdown from two yards out. The Michigan Stadium crowd responded with a polite golf clap.
The first half wasn't over.
The same couldn't be said for the competitive portion of the game. Higdon's run gave the Wolverines a 28-0 lead heading into halftime. At that point, they'd outgained Penn State by 209 yards; star running back Saquon Barkley had 66 of PSU's 50 total yards. That is not a typo.
The two teams didn't look like they belonged on the same field, and apparently James Franklin agreed. PSU opened the second half by forcing a three-and-out, then mounting their only sustained drive of the game thus far, getting deep into Michigan territory before facing a fourth-and-goal from the two. Franklin sent out the field goal unit to turn a four-score game into a four-score game. He sent them back out after calling a timeout to avoid a delay-of-game penalty. The kick was good; it was also a white flag.
Jim Harbaugh did not share that mindset. Michigan's opening touchdown came on a fourth-and-goal plunge by Khalid Hill, and a nine-yard Wilton Speight scramble(!) on a fourth-and-seven set up Higdon's half-ending score; Michigan would go for two more and come up short, but they didn't take the foot off the gas until the game's final minutes.
"It's just cool that he knows we'll pick it up," said Speight. "We know that his mindset is to smash it in for a touchdown, too. It's cool that we're all on the same page."
"Especially the one way where we were going into the wind, we thought the odds were better going for fourth downs," said Harbaugh.
One team played to win. The other played to survive.
Michigan dominated from the outset. They sacked PSU QB Trace McSorley twice on the first drive. Jabrill Peppers nearly housed the ensuing punt; after a sideline infraction moved the offense back to the Penn State 24-yard line, Wilton Speight completed three straight passes to get the team in a goal-to-go situation before Hill ultimately squeezed his way into the end zone. Michigan would finish with six rushing touchdown by five backs; five came from three yards out or fewer, with the only exception a 40-yard sprint draw to Higdon in the fourth quarter.
"I was really impressed with the running backs. All of them contributed in big ways," said Harbaugh, before naming all five backs—Higdon, Hill, De'Veon Smith, Ty Isaac, and Chris Evans—who crossed the goal line. "Moving the chains and breaking some big runs—it was a good way to move the ball."
It was indeed. Michigan bounced back from a couple sub-par rushing performances between the tackles and made Penn State's banged-up front look completely outmatched. The Wolverines covered 326 yards at 6.7 per carry, and in a big change from the first three games, only five of those yards came from a receiver. Smith led the way with 107 yards on only 12 carries; Higdon, Isaac, and Evans each had over 50 yards, and all the backs looked sharp.
It was no coincidence the offensive line had their best performance of the year, opening big holes up front and not allowing a sack. Speight mentioned in the postgame presser that Michigan ran the same run play eight or nine times in a row, with the only variation being whether they ran left or right. That third-quarter drive culminated in a three-yard TD by Evans to put Michigan up 35-3 and remove any shred of doubt about the outcome.
"I started laughing," Speight said of seeing the same call signaled in from the sideline so many times in a row.
"I thought our team was prepared and confident. There was some communication out there, especially from the offensive linemen, of what they thought they could do well," said Harbaugh. "We listened to them and repeated the call a few times. It was simply that."
Speight wasn't asked to do much through the air, but he was capable when called upon, going 21-for-34 for 189 yards and a short TD pass to freshman TE Devin Asiasi. He didn't look worse for wear after a rough outing against Colorado.
On the other side of the ball, the defense was unrelenting after welcoming Jourdan Lewis and Taco Charlton back to the lineup. Barkley had a couple moments, but he had little in the way of help.
"That's a good back. Saquon Barkley is really good." said Harbaugh. "But our guys were there and they were swarming."
Nine defenders combined for 13 tackles for loss; five were responsible for the six sacks. Mo Hurst, looking quite healthy, led the way with three TFLs and a sack.
The only downer came when Jeremy Clark suffered an apparent non-contact knee injury on a fourth-quarter kickoff. He required a cart to get to the locker room, and Harbaugh didn't mince words after the game, saying "we think it's a season-ender."
That will be something to overcome next week, when Michigan will host a top-ten matchup with Wisconsin, which is coming off a blowout of Michigan State. The Wolverines will enter that game as the winningest program in the country after today's win coupled with a Notre Dame loss to Duke—I'll pause here for laughter—gave the good guys the edge in win percentage again.
The Badgers will provide a stiffer contest. It would be difficult for them not to do so.
Talk about the line play through three games. Some room for improvement, do you think?
“Yeah, absolutely. There’s always room for improvement. They’ve done a good job and we’ve got to keep on getting better just in pass protection, which is—we’ll do that, and communication. But they’ve done a nice job, and we expect a big game this week.”
Do you see guys still playing too high at times?
“Yeah. You always can improve on the offensive line with pad level. You’ve got to get lower and get your eyes in the right spot and be physical with your hands and move your feet and know where you’re going and communication and targets and that sort of thing still needs improvement. Every day you’ve got to work on that and that’s important.”
Do you still see a rotation with the two Bens at left guard?
“Rotation’s always open. Rotation’s always open.”
Talk about Bredeson’s progression.
“Done a nice job. Really has. He plays, like I mentioned before, quick twitch and smart and can process quickly on his feet. Like all those other freshmen, has done a nice job transitioning there and really improved.”
What did Wilton show you in that game? You take the first game interception and then the big hit and coming back in.
“Wilton’s a true competitor and he’s a tough guy. I think anybody who plays the quarterback position’s got to be a tough guy. You’re gonna take hits you don’t want to happen, we don’t want to happen, but it’s how they respond. I mean, that was a tough hit on him and he bounced up and he led us the rest of the game and took us back from being behind. Just really pleased with what he did. It shows his true character and how important it is, the team to him and him being a competitor and winning every down.”
[After THE JUMP: what’s up with the Morris/O’Korn thing, complimenting large gentlemen plying their trade, and a big compliment for Speight]
- The sound is a little weird. This is because Craig is in the wrong chair, probably.
- Iowa falls, Ed is kermittishly sipping tea.
- Peppersageddon. Why are you trying Peppers on the edge?
- Repetition will make the defense better.
- Worry about Braden/blitz pickups.
- Colorado’s nose tackle is good.
- Let’s hope Speight was injured and trust in Harbaugh
- Ohio State-Oklahoma. Is Louisville a playoff team—they’ve got Clemson and Houston on the schedule.
You can catch the entire episode on Michigan Insider's podcast stream on Audioboom.
THE USUAL LINKS
News bullets and other items:
There’s a chance Jourdan Lewis, Taco Charlton, and Bryan Mone play this week. As Harbaugh said, they might “graduate from the training room back onto the field.”
Peppers is unlike anyone Harbaugh’s ever coached. He’s played 11 positions at Michigan, and Harbaugh said there are more that he could play well.
Speight’s elbow was injured on the strip-sack early in the game, which was a result of a missed assignment. This raised Speight a rung in the team’s esteem because he walked it off and, as Harbaugh put it, “…this isn’t track, this is football and playing that quarterback position, that’s part of the game.”
Harbaugh’s wife’s doctor described the punt block that was returned for a TD as a slippery watermelon. The ultrasound went well, by the way.
Harbaugh loves his defense so much that sometimes he watches them play even when he feels like he should be preparing for the next drive
I wanted to talk to you first about Michael Jocz and what he’s bringing to special teams—I know he had a block in the last game—and also what he does in the classroom.
“He had his first catch last week. It was great to see. And he had a blocked punt this week that resulted in a touchdown—great to see. He’s consistently been our, second year in a row, smartest player on the team in terms of grade point average. He’s already graduated in mechanical engineering and he’s on track to do his master’s in one year instead of the normal two, so he’s cutting that in half. He’s really been figuring things out, as you’d expect from a mechanical engineer. Great teammate. Really happy for his on-field success now, as well.”
And then also Erik Magnuson, if you could assess his play through three games and also the spirit he brings to you team.
“Yeah, Mags is good in both of those regards. Has long brought a lot to our team. He’s probably been our most consistent, best pass protector so far. Likeable guy. Everybody likes Mags. He’s a good leader and a good guy. A genuine, down to earth, good person.”
Two turnovers through the nonconference, only 10 penalties—can you assess the job you feel like your team has done in those areas?
“Those two areas have been good. We’re getting…turnover margin has got to be on the plus side. Don’t know exactly what it is, but we’re on the plus there. I feel like we’re playing—we had a few penalties. More this past week than we have had, so I think we’re playing good, legit penalty-free for the most part football.
[Next person with the microphone thinks it’s their turn to ask, but alas, there’s more. Harbaugh’s taken this pause to reflect and wants to share his thoughts.]
“See, I don’t just give one word answers. That would have been a perfect time to just say, ‘We’ve been good in those two areas.’ I tried to elaborate. I hope to get some credit for that.”
[After THE JUMP: many multi-word answers]
9/17/2016 – Michigan 45, Colorado 28 – 3-0
linebacker on fire [Patrick Barron]
Let's say you're on the sideline of a football game. You've got a job to do, and you're doing it. This job involves looking at things other than the field, so you rely on your colleagues to let you know when the action threatens to spill over into your area of the sideline.
This is a fine system. You've honed it over the years. People move at a certain speed, you see, and when you hear "heads up" you get your head up, evaluate the situation, and avoid the brunt of the contact. Tried, and true, this system. Damn near infallible, in fact. At no point have you looked winged death straight in the facemask.
Then, this Saturday. Just after your team has taken a very unexpected second-half lead, the system kicks in. "Heads up." Head goes up. This is a process, though, and as you are in the midst of this process your brain starts signaling to you that something is wrong. The tone of voice, maybe? An ominous breeze? What's that thing with the sirens going by? Doppler effect? Whatever it is, the hairs on the back of your neck stand up straight. The process is complete now. Your head is up.
The system has failed.
The system was designed with certain tolerances and Jabrill Peppers has just blown through all of them. You are now staring winged death straight in the facemask. What a terrible time for it to be, now. Before is good. Later is good, assuming that there will in fact be a later. Now… now is bad. You spin the fight or flight wheel and land on "soil yourself."
And who can blame you, really?
Sphincters are also designed with certain tolerances. In your own way you've just blown through as many of them as Jabrill Peppers has in the realm of physics. So you've got that going for you.
There is a certain kind of person—usually a rival fan with a brain that could be cooled down to meat-locker temperatures without any discernible ill effect—who spent most of the offseason bleating about excessive hype for Jabrill Peppers. Peppers didn't have a bunch of shiny counting stats, you see, and therefore he was worse than other people who did.
This argument, already dead in the water to any slightly objective person with eyes, is now beyond repair. Peppers has a decent season's worth of linebacker stats three games in: 9.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, three QB hurries, and a forced fumble. He leads Michigan with 28 tackles, 19 of them solo. He's got 173 punt return yards—an average of 22 yards a pop!—and has just started contributing on offense.
Linear extrapolation of these numbers gets to territory so uncharted that Captain Janeway and her crew of morons show up to survey it. We probably shouldn't do that. Spicy stats will get rarer as the competition level increases… insofar as it does. Rutgers is still on the schedule, after all. Maryland—which just went to double OT with Central Florida—is also on the docket. Penn State and Wisconsin have offensive lines that are, uh, in flux. Peppers might not might meet significantly more resistance except in a few games.
So screw it! Linear extrapolation: 112 tackles, 38 for loss, 10 sacks, a thousand return yards and however many touchdowns, and whatever he chips in on offense. Ahahahahahaha.
PICTURED: THE BIG TEN CONFERENCE
This was a concerning game for several reasons, not least of them the fact that a middling-at-best Pac-12 school was driving to go up 28-7 in front of a shocked Michigan Stadium. Post Traumatic Hoke Disorder was in full effect amongst the 110,000 gathered. Personally, I was not having a real good time. I went into emotional shutoff mode, as is my wont, and contemplated how I was going to break it to MGoBlog readers that I was moving to Bolivia, as is also my wont.
Peppers didn't rescue that himself. I had a fist pump after Rashan Gary came around the corner and a ragged exhalation when Amara Darboh dismissed a couple tacklers to turn a tunnel screen into a touchdown. Michigan's rebound from a game they certainly lose in the previous regime was a collective effort. That collective effort was mostly accepted on mute.
The one guy who pierced right through that attempted stoicism was Peppers. Because BANG he's thumping some dude in the backfield and BANG he's just slashed upfield through the first wave of punt defenders and BANG he has sacked the quarterback before he's even finished his drop. Even when you're trying not to feel anything in case the feelings are horrible, it's impossible to see Peppers and not think OH HELL YES SOMETHING 'BOUT TO BE ON FIRE I CAN'T FEEL MY FAAAACE LET'S GO PUNCH A LEOPARD WOO.
Offense or defense, doesn't matter. He's the best lion. He sinks his meaty claws into anyone with the temerity to test his edge. He's the best gazelle. He slashes through a line of claws without ill effect. He is sui generis, the scourge of sphincters, and someone put him in a winged helmet to rouse the inert from their stupors and send them to their local superstores in search of an axe appropriate for crazed berserking. Check.
Known Friends And Trusted Agents Of The Week
you're the man now, dog
#1 Jabrill Peppers is an easy selection after 3.5 TFLs, a sack, two rushes for 24 yards, a kickoff return to the Colorado 45, and four punt returns averaging 25 yards a pop including the game-sealing touchdown. Peppers has been everything he's been hyped up to be so far this year. The busted coverage is a demerit, and this is still an easy pick.
#2 Jake Butt was the one consistently positive target in Michigan's passing game, with seven catches for 87 yards; I also caught a couple of positive run-blocking events on Michigan's big plays.
#3 Ben Gedeon had 12 tackles, a critical sack early in the game, and was a major component of Michigan's interior run defense. Pop pass issues may have been on him and McCray but asking LBs to respond to RPOs like that is asking for trouble; I'm assuming those are on the safeties.
Honorable mention: Khalid Hill would have made it if I wasn't pretty sure he got Speight killed on the sack/strip. Rashan Gary, Chris Wormley, and Ryan Glasgow were key components of a stout interior run defense.
5: Jabrill Peppers((T2, Hawaii; #3 UCF, #1 Colorado).
3: Mike McCray(#1, Hawaii), Wilton Speight (#1 UCF).
2: Ryan Glasgow(#2 UCF), Jake Butt(#2 Colorado).
1: Delano Hill (T2, Hawaii), Ben Gedeon(#3, Colorado).
0.5: Chris Evans (T3, Hawaii), Mason Cole(T3, Hawaii).
Who's Got It Better Than Us Of The Week
This week's best thing ever.
Peppers finally gets his return touchdown and seals the game.
Honorable mention: Matching 45 yard touchdowns down the edge by De'Veon Smith and Amara Darboh; various other Peppers things.
MARCUS HALL EPIC DOUBLE BIRD OF THE WEEK.
This week's worst thing ever.
A blown protection gets Wilton Speight blindsided for a 14-0 Colorado lead and a first quarter of deep panic.
Honorable mention: A blown coverage results in a long post touchdown to open things up for CU; Colorado strikes back at the beginning of the first half with a 70-yard bomb.
PREVIOUS EPIC DOUBLE BIRDs
Hawaii: Not Mone again.
UCF: Uh, Dymonte, you may want to either tackle or at least lightly brush that guy.
Colorado: Speight blindsided.
[After THE JUMP: SPEIGHTDOWN, also bad thing discussion]
Jabrill Peppers left the Buffaloes (and his coach) in awe. [Patrick Barron/MGoBlog]
After one quarter, Colorado had a 21-7 lead, outgained Michigan 195 yards to 66, and flat-out looked like the better team.
"We knew it wouldn't be a fairy tale all year," said Jake Butt. "We knew we'd get punched in the face."
Michigan punched back, hard. The Buffaloes gained 130 yards for the rest of the game. Michigan had 331. If Kenny Allen hadn't missed a pair of field goals, the Wolverines even would've covered the 20-point spread.
Early on, Colorado's up-tempo offense and athletic defense caught the Wolverines by surprise. Jabrill Peppers was caught out of position on a deep post for Colorado's first touchdown, then the Buffs went up by 14 less than a minute later when Chidobe Awuzie forced a Wilton Speight fumble that Derek McCartney took back 18 yards for a score. Speight, either shaken or hurt on the hit, had a tough time dialing in after that. If not for a blocked punt by Michael Jocz that Grant Perry took in for a touchdown, Colorado would've exited the first quarter up by 21 after another Sefo Liufao touchdown pass.
Then Michigan adjusted. The defensive front got to Liufau time and again, eventually forcing him out of the game with an apparent ankle injury, though not before Liufau somehow bombed a 70-yard touchdown off one leg to Shay Fields to open the second-half scoring. They shut down the Colorado running game entirely, and the Fields touchdown was the only big play after a first quarter full of them. Don Brown is paid good money for a reason.
The offense slowly but surely picked it up, too. With Khalid Hill leading the way in authoritative fashion, Jehu Chesson got the corner for a 17-yard jet sweep touchdown. Amara Darboh gave Michigan the proverbial momentum swing they needed on a 45-yard screen, stiff-arming a defender to the ground on his way to the end zone with only 33 seconds left in the half. Despite a disastrous start, Michigan led 24-21 at the break.
Colorado landed another big shot with the Fields touchdown. Michigan responded in kind with a pitch to De'Veon Smith on the second play of the ensuing drive; Smith hardly had to do anything on a 42-yard jaunt down the sideline on perhaps the best-blocked run play of this young season. The Wolverines finally grabbed control of the game when a long catch-and-run by Grant Perry set up a one-yard touchdown for Ty Isaac to give M a 38-28 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Then Jabrill Peppers, having a remarkable all-around game, launched his Heisman campaign. Peppers already had three punt returns and a kickoff return that were a block or two away from reaching the end zone when Colorado lined up to punt from deep in their own territory; a line-drive kick went right to Peppers's chest, and he exploded up the middle, overcoming a cramp at the five-yard line to at long last tally his first return touchdown in a Michigan uniform.
"It was definitely a sense of relief," said Peppers. "If I don't score there, then they needed to put someone else back there."
Peppers's overall stat line boggles the mind: two rushes for 24 yards, four punt returns for 99 yards and a TD, two kickoff returns for 81 yards, nine tackles (six solo), 3.5 TFLs, and a thunderous sack.
"Above all, Jabrill Peppers proved that he was the best player in today's game," said Jim Harbaugh, who praised the talent level on both teams. "We don't win that game without Jabrill Peppers."
"That's a team effort, but... wow," Harbaugh added.
Peppers wasn't the only Paramus Catholic graduate to provide some honest-to-god wow experiences. Rashan Gary recorded 1.5 TFLs and a pair of QB hurries; even better, he eliminated the mental errors that allowed UCF to pick up big gains on the ground last week.
Michigan leaves this game with plenty to work on. Dymonte Thomas, Delano Hill, and Peppers all had coverage busts that led to big plays. Speight's performance didn't equal those he had in the season's first two weeks. Allen, who looked either injured or overwhelmed by his workload, struggled in all phases of the kicking game.
"To be honest I think we did [need a game like this]," said Butt. "We can look back and learn from this."
With Penn State and Wisconsin up next on the schedule, it won't take long to find out how well they've learned those lessons.