By: Will Burchfield
Karan Higdon, sitting to the right of Brandon Peters at the interview podium following Michigan’s win over Rutgers on Saturday, leaned forward as Peters leaned back.
“Brandon’s a laid-back, cool kid. You can see it in his demeanor right now. That’s what I love the most about him,” said Higdon. “He definitely doesn’t fluctuate. What you see is what you get, and that’s very important, especially at the quarterback position.”
Indeed, Peters’ calmness is one of his many strengths on the football field. It’s also been the cause of his biggest weakness, perhaps his only weakness. As recently as this past summer, with Michigan’s quarterback battle ostensibly up for grabs, Peters was struggling to communicate at the line of scrimmage.
He simply wasn’t loud enough. And his arm, though mightily impressive, couldn’t do all the talking.
Then, one day late in training camp, Jim Harbaugh’s ears perked up. The soft-spoken Peters was barking.
“It was like, ‘Wow, he’s a lot louder. He’s really doing the job. That sounds good. That sounds real,’” said Harbaugh.
Wilton Speight would start the season as the starting quarterback, as was expected, but Peters was now officially on Harbaugh’s radar. When Speight injured his back in September, giving way to John O’Korn, Peters sensed an opportunity.
“Ever since Wilton went down, I stepped into the backup role and I’ve been preparing like I’m the starting QB. Like coach always says, ‘Be ready. Prepare. You’re one play away.’ That’s what he always preaches to us, and that’s why I’ve been preparing like I’m starting,” said Peters.
O’Korn did little to grab hold of his opportunity in the wake of Speight’s injury. Things took a turn for the worse on Saturday when he fumbled two snaps and went 3-6 for 13 yards and an interception through Michigan’s first four drives.
Sometime in the first quarter, Peters was told to start warming up. After a dismal three-and-out midway through the second, which featured a fumble and two incompletions by O’Korn, his opportunity arrived.
“When we got the ball (back) I was just standing next to Harbaugh and he said, ‘Let’s go, you’re in,'” Peters said.
The 20-year-old redshirt freshman promptly led Michigan on a 77-yard scoring drive, going 3-3 for 42 yards. Then he did it again, this time working within the hurry-up offense to march 49 yards in 1:26. He capped things off with a 20-yard touch pass to Chris Evans for his first career touchdown.
By halftime Michigan was up 21-7 and Peters was 5-7 for 69 yards. At long last, there was wind in the sails of an offense that has spent much of this season drifting in no direction.
The Wolverines would roll to a 35-14 win.
“I knew Brandon was hungry. He’s been fighting each and every day since camp and we knew what he was capable of,” said Higdon, who ran 18 times for 158 yards and two touchdowns. “John was hitting a little bump in the road, and I knew Brandon was going to come in and pick it up.”
For Peters, jitters weren’t a concern. They’re never a concern.
“I wasn’t that nervous, honestly. It was just a great opportunity to get out there,” he said. “I was more confident and excited than nervous.”
Peters spoke quietly and calmly into the microphone. At times he was almost hard to hear. But when he needed to raise his voice on Saturday, he did.
“I’ve come a far way since camp as far as communication to the offensive line. I think it’s the biggest step I made. It’s been my weakness ever since I’ve gotten to Michigan and I’m just really focused on it now. It makes a big difference,” Peters said.
Said Harbaugh, “He’s made big strides in that area, and was good out there today.”
Harbaugh intended to play Peters this week no matter what, and he informed his team of this decision on Monday. The fledgling’s wing couldn’t be kept on the bench any longer.
“For a good couple weeks now, we felt that he was ready. It’s time for the bird to leave the nest. The kid’s leaving the house and going off on (his) own. It was time. Right, dad?” Harbaugh said, smiling at Jack Harbaugh in the back of the room. “Me and my dad talked about it last week and this week.”
When Peters took the field, Harbaugh was at ease. The coach is typically in aguish during games — like he’s enduring a root canal, he’ll say — but Peters’ psyche seemed to seep into his own.
“Nobody was nervous about what was going to happen. We thought he’d do good,” said Harbaugh, before pausing and enjoying an epiphany. “I think he did better than everybody thought, too.”
Asked what impressed him most about Peters’ performance, Harbaugh straightened his posture and backed up from the microphone. It was as if he was mimicking his quarterback’s ability to size up the situation before him.
“From the first time he went in there, just feeling the deep zone and feeling the linebackers drop, just taking that extra half second to take a breath and hit the check-down, it was good ball,” said Harbaugh, for whom “good ball” is a compliment of the highest order.
“Every drive he was moving the team,” Harbaugh added. “A touchdown drive in the two-minute drill and a 75-yard drive to start his first series as a starting quarterback in college. I would think that’d be very good for his confidence, and we’ll look to build on that.”
This is Peters’ offense now. It’s not yet his team, because Michigan is still founded on its defense, but the quarterback debate that has burned since September is over. Harbaugh himself extinguished it.
“I feel really good about the way (Peters) played and I feel good about him now taking the next step and being the starting quarterback. As I sit here now, that’s the way I feel about it,” Harbaugh said.
It’s not his style, but Peters just might shout for joy.