Monday, November 9, 2015

Michigan 49, Rutgers 16: One man can change the world

At first, I saw this tweet and laughed, like I've laughed many times before when having the pleasure of reading an amusing Harbaugh tweet, one assuredly sent without irony (which makes it all the funnier). 

Then, I thought about its content: one man can change the world. 

And really, could anything be more true for Michigan football right now? 

That man, of course, is Jabrill Peppers. 

Already up 14-3 early in the second quarter, Michigan lined up at the Rutgers 18-yard line and hit Peppers on a bubble screen to the right side. There seemed an impossible amount of traffic for the New Jersey native to wade through, like so much flotsam and jetsam crowding a shore. 

Nonetheless, Peppers weaved his way through like a talented high school player clearly operating on a different plane this his peers (which, naturally, was very much the case in Peppers' own high school career). 

Yet, this is college, and the aesthetics are much the same for the sophomore. Peppers caught it at the 25, avoided a Rutgers tackler, sped past three others through to the line of scrimmage, then locked into another gear, following a Jake Butt block past the final potential tackler into the end zone. 

Too easy. 

Even when he wasn't scoring, his mere presence makes an impact. On another play, a trio of Rutgers defenders followed him, a decoy, as if they were magnetized.

College football isn't college basketball, where one player can truly make the difference between a middling (or even slightly above average) team and a title contender.

But take Peppers away and what you have is simply a slightly better version of last year's team. A team that still has a solid defense, but probably not elite, and an offense that doesn't turn it over (as much) or get its quarterback killed via poor blocking nearly as often. Michigan would still be better by virtue of added experience and Harbaugh, but they likely wouldn't be 7-2, with a very really chance to finish the regular season 10-2 (given a little magic to close the season against the currently undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes).

Before going down with an injury, Peppers briefly flashed his raw ability early last season. But now that he's back in the lineup, he's making an impact in every phase of the game. And as eye-rollingly meathead-ish as the following is, he's also returned a bit of swagger to the University of Michigan football team that hasn't been seen in over a decade, and likely not since Charles Woodson played in Ann Arbor 748 years ago, the Heisman-winning do-everything player whose doings are recorded on papyrus, covered in vague and tremendous hieroglyphics portraying one-handed interceptions and detonations of hapless wide receiver screens in nonconference play. The language is old and not known to many, but call the Michigan sophomore Jean-Fran├žois Champollion, for he's cracked the code and is using its secrets in the present day. 

There isn't much to say about this one other than Michigan took care of a bad team the way they're supposed to, a week after the scraped by against a team they probably should not have had to scrape by.

In other spots, Jake Rudock put on his most impressive performance in the winged helmet, passing for 337 yards and two touchdowns on 18-of-25 passing, a week after being brutally knocked out a game. Sure, it was Rutgers, but the Iowa transfer didn't exactly light the world on fire against weak opponents earlier in the season, so this was progress.

When one kick return touchdown that ended up not mattering at all is the only glaringly obvious blemish in a game, you know things have gone well.

Even so, Michigan is still trying to find its mojo on the ground. De'Veon Smith carried the load with 15 carries for 73 yards, in a week when there were rumblings that Drake Johnson might have his chance at becoming the feature back. Michigan is just going to continue this Swiss Army knife, back-by-committee approach, which I think everyone, including Harbaugh, is okay with for now.

In perhaps the most unironically delightful development of the season, fullbacks Sione Houma (6 carries, 19 yards) and Joe Kerridge are actual pieces of the offense beyond the token single carry for two yards.

Michigan has had a surprisingly diverse cast of fullback types over the years (leading to its relative disappearance in the Rich Rodriguez years): Kevin Dudley, Aaron Shea, B.J. Askew and Chris Floyd, among others.

Houma and Kerridge, in their own way, are adding to that tradition. In perhaps a glossed over development of this season, the use of the fullback is one that I hope, and expect, will continue in the Harbaugh era.

And hey, if there ever was a time to be a school angling for the few fullbacks that now exist, roaming the American plains like the rare buffalo, this it it. With this one-year resume alone, the Wolverines should be in good position to possibly landing even more talented versions of guys like Houma and Kerridge going forward.

After parading through five-straight blowout, then two nail-biters, the Wolverines returned to the land of the comfortable win this past weekend. I felt bad for thinking, at several points in the second half, that this was kind of boring. But then I was quickly reminded that these sorts of wins should be appreciated, now and even long past the point that they're no longer rare.

The rest of this season, however, promises to swing the pendulum back in the other direction. Road trips to Indiana and Penn State are tougher than they might seem, and the Wolverines close the season with, well, you know who.

Peppers alone won't win Michigan those games, particularly the season finale. Even so, it's true: one man can change the world (or, in this case, a football team, if we're avoiding hyperbole).

And with the sophomore from New Jersey playing defense, offense and special teams, the Wolverines will continue to have more than a fighting chance the rest of the way.

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