By Will Burchfield
Jabrill Peppers made a number of impressive plays in Michigan’s 63-3 win over Hawaii, but it was the one that didn’t count that stood out the most.
With Michigan leading 7-0 midway through the first quarter, its do-everything Heisman Candidate lined up at the 25 yard line to field a punt. He had just helped the defense force a three-and-out and now he was lending a hand on special teams.
The punt sailed his way as the Rainbow Warriors charged down the field and the Big House held its breath in excitement. Peppers received the ball at the 28-yard line, ran backward searching for a hole, and then darted up field, slicing his way through three Hawaii defenders.
Instantly, the crowd came to life.
Now Peppers shifted into overdrive, the cheers gaining steam with his every stride, tacklers strewn in his wake like buoys. He veered toward the Hawaii sideline and then straightened out as he approached midfield.
The Big House was nearing a frenzy.
Another defender converged on Peppers just past the 50-yard line, racing forward with courageous intent. This Warrior seemed bent on stopping the show – he merely became a prop. Peppers hurdled him and then stepped out of bounds, quite literally jumping over the Rainbow.
“Ohhhhhhhhhh,” cried the crowd, “Ohhhhhhhh!”
It was both a deliberate response and a reflexive one, the fans caught between reveling in the moment and trying to understand it. Their shock wore off quickly, but they made sure Hawaii’s humiliation didn’t.
And Peppers was happy enough to bask in it all, opening his arms to the crowd as he pranced back to the Michigan sideline.
It was all Wolverines from there.
True, Peppers’ return was called back for a penalty. And yes, Michigan was already leading 7-0 at the time. But it had been a less-than-inspiring start for the No. 7 team in the country, which, through ten minutes of play, hadn’t looked all that superior to its weary opponent.
Peppers quickly proved otherwise and his teammates fell in line.
“I thought that was a brilliant return,” coach Jim Harbaugh said, proving it didn’t have to count to be incredibly special.
Peppers’ most tangible effect on the game came on defense. The linebacker/cornerback/safety (and that’s being concise) blew up Hawaii’s first offensive play and never looked back. He wreaked havoc against the pass and helped shut down the run, finishing with seven solo tackles and personifying defensive coordinator Don Brown’s trademark saying: solve problems with aggression.
His contribution in this regard can’t be overlooked.
But Peppers’ most significant impact wasn’t quantified in the box score. His most memorable moment came on a play that didn’t count. That scintillating return put wind in his team’s sails and breathed life into the Big House. With the crowd lathered up and Michigan’s bravado unleashed, the rest was academic.