By: Will Burchfield
Jim Harbaugh was conflicted during his press conference after No. 4 Michigan’s 45-28 win over Colorado on Saturday.
He was adamant that the victory was a team effort, that it couldn’t be attributed to a single player. Yet time and time again, Harbaugh came back to one Wolverine.
“A lot of players played really great football today, but I think Jabrill was by far the best guy out there in all phases. He was outstanding,” Harbaugh said.
That would be Jabrill Peppers, of course, Michigan’s sophomore Swiss Army knife who dives into a football game like an all-you-can-eat buffet: a helping of defense, a side of offense and a whole lot of special teams.
And boy, did Peppers gorge himself on Saturday at the Big House, racking up 204 all-purpose yards and recording 9 tackles, 3.5 for loss. Michigan was on shaky ground in the game’s early stages, trailing 21-7 after the first quarter, and it was Peppers who held things together.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the Wolverines’ secondary, where, sans Jourdan Lewis, the defensive backs were wilting like prairie grass. Eventually, with the Buffaloes threatening to stretch their lead to 28-7, Peppers decided enough was enough.
He made a critical tackle on a third-down screen pass from Michigan’s 17-yard line, fighting through a block to do so. Colorado missed the ensuing field goal, and the Wolverines’ 14-point deficit slowly turned into a 17-point win. That turnaround was due in large part to one player.
“We don’t win that game without Jabrill Peppers,” Harbaugh said.
In the first half alone, Peppers had eight tackles and 95 all-purpose yards, 17 of which came on an end-around that jolted a dazed crowd to life. Peppers’ invigorating effect on the Big House is indubitable and unique, the fans stirred by his every move.
This is especially true in regard to his special-teams work. When Peppers lines up to field a kick-off or a punt, a murmur takes hold in the crowd. It quickly turns into a roar when his name is announced on the loud speaker, and then it hangs there in the air, a swollen balloon on a string, as the ball sails his way.
He catches it and – pop! – the fans explode, their furor spreading across the stadium like wildfire.
After falling behind 24-21 at halftime, Colorado reclaimed the lead with a 70-yard touchdown pass on its first drive of the third quarter. The momentum Michigan had carried into intermission was snuffed out.
Peppers promptly restored it.
He returned the ensuing kickoff 55 yards to the Buffaloes’ 45, setting up a 42-yard touchdown run by De’Veon Smith two plays later. It was the latter play that sent the fans into a frenzy, but it was Peppers’ return that got them back on their feet.
With Michigan looking to put the game away early in the fourth quarter, Peppers struck again.
He fielded a line-drive punt around midfield, eluded a couple of tacklers and then squeezed just enough juice out of his cramping legs to reach the end-zone, diving across the goal-line in relief. It was the first punt-return touchdown of his young Michigan career, after several near-misses in the past.
“I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m not getting in this time,’” Peppers laughed. “I was tired of just being an almost kind of guy, so it definitely felt good to finally punch one in.
“It was indescribable. I think I just laid there, like, ‘Finally, man!’ The guys did a great job of giving me a crease, they trust me enough to hit what I see, make something happen, and I think that’s what I did.”
Indeed – and that goes for the entire afternoon.
“We were talking about fighting back and enough good players making enough good plays,” Harbaugh said. “Jabrill got us going on the special teams. Again, that’s a team effort, but wow, he was making the difference.”
Few players in college football, and none on Michigan, are as comprehensively dominant as Peppers. The moment you start celebrating one facet of his game, another one comes to mind. If his touchdown was the most thrilling part of Saturday’s victory, his third-quarter sack may have been the most important.
Trailing 31-28, Colorado had driven to the Michigan 29-yard line. On 2nd and 10, Peppers, playing linebacker, burst through the offensive line and pummeled quarterback Steven Montez for an 11-yard loss. The Buffaloes were forced to punt and wouldn’t enter Michigan territory again.
Game, set, match.
Afterward, Harbaugh was running through a list of players who contributed to the win. He had already heaped praise on Peppers a number of times, so he singled out seniors like Mike McCray, Jake Butt and De’Veon Smith to spread the love.
For a moment, anyway.
“Back to Jabrill, though, the way he played on defense was really outstanding. He really showed his toughness, his athleticism and he had some hits that were momentum-changing hits in this football game,” Harbaugh said.
Peppers was involved in more plays than anyone on Saturday. He admitted he was tired afterward, but fatigue was far from his mind during the course of the game.
“I don’t really think about is as how many plays I played. I’m just doing whatever I gotta do to help us win the game,” he said. “Especially when you’re down, you don’t even think about being tired. You’re just thinking about what I gotta do to get this win.”
Peppers did it all on Saturday, proving his indispensability on this Michigan team. The Wolverines met their first batch of adversity of the season, and their best player guided them through it.
Even Harbaugh, in spite of his best efforts, couldn’t deny Peppers’ singular brilliance.
“Every football game that’s ever been played, that probably ever will be played, is a battle to see who the best players are,” he said. “Above all, Jabrill Peppers proved that he was the best player in today’s game.”