One foot made all the difference.
It wasn’t that of redshirt freshman kicker Quinn Nordin, who nailed a career-best five field goals to tie a school record. And it wasn’t that of fifth-year senior Ty Isaac, who broke through the line of scrimmage and made it all the way into the end zone before the officials called him back, stating that he had stepped out of bounds.
Though there will certainly be arguments to the contrary, Nordin’s 17 points and Isaac’s near-touchdown paled in comparison to the left foot of freshman receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones. For the No. 7 Michigan football team, which led Air Force by just three halfway through the game, Peoples-Jones made the play of the game Saturday. And to think, it almost never happened.
Peoples-Jones, lined up to receive the punt, watched eagerly as the ball soared through the air. While backpedaling nearly 10 yards, he never took his eye off it. As it corralled into his grasp, he immediately turned on the jets.
He ran 30 yards to his left, sliced across the painted ‘M’ in the middle of the field and headed toward the right sideline. There was only one Falcon left in his path with 20 yards to go.
Peoples-Jones faked to his left, and while he gained just enough separation to run around Air Force punter Charlie Scott, Scott followed his cut and managed to put both hands on Peoples-Jones at the very edge of the sideline.
The freshman’s right foot hung just shy of the sideline, but he came down with his left. He had shaken off Scott, and the contact kept him balanced just long enough to bring his left foot down inside the sideline. The final 15 yards was easy.
With a 79-yard touchdown — Michigan’s first of the game and its first via punt return by a true freshman since 2008 — Peoples-Jones gave the Wolverines a double-digit lead only one minute into the second half.
“I mean, it just opened up like the Red Sea,” Peoples-Jones said. “… (The punt return team) did a great job of blocking, not holding, and made my job pretty easy.”
There had been much anticipation ahead of People-Jones’ first punt return of the day after the freshman receiver had been benched halfway through the Wolverines’ previous game against Cincinnati.
He only made one true error. But at his position, one mistake can lead to disastrous consequences.
In the case of Peoples-Jones, he kept making that same mistake over and over again. And against the Bearcats, it cost him dearly.
Just eight minutes into the first quarter, Michigan held a comfortable 14-0 lead. With the Wolverines riding high after junior safety Tyree Kinnel’s pick-six, all Peoples-Jones had to do was call for a fair catch.
Instead, he watched as the Cincinnati punt soared through the air, heading straight toward him. If he had signaled for a fair catch, maybe his main blocker, freshman defensive back Benjamin St-Juste, would have stopped running. While it’s no guarantee, Peoples-Jones might have been able to prevent what happened next.
St-Juste wasn’t even looking at the ball when it bounced off him and right into the path of an oncoming Bearcat. Cincinnati took over possession at the Wolverines’ 38-yard line and scored its first touchdown minutes later to cut Michigan’s lead in half.
Thinking Peoples-Jones had learned from his mistake, coach Jim Harbaugh gave him another chance. But when he was hammered by a Bearcat immediately after controlling another punt, Harbaugh had enough. Peoples-Jones didn’t see the field again that day.
Saturday, Peoples-Jones was all over the field. He called for fair catches when they were necessary, returned another punt for 25 yards, and caught two passes — the first two receptions of his career — for 52 yards, including a 37-yard connection with redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight.
“I think you saw Donovan settle in a little bit today and realize what he’s truly capable of,” Speight said.
Though Peoples-Jones — the No. 1 receiver in the 2017 class — has taken a backseat to fellow freshman Tarik Black so far, he took center stage on Saturday. And there could be much more of him in store.
“We’re giving a lot of thought to using Donovan in a lot of ways,” Harbaugh said. “… I think you’re gonna see him grow, grow, grow. He’s been plus, plus, plus, so (it’s) great to see.
“I feel like great things will happen for Donovan Peoples-Jones.”
After reaching the end zone, Peoples-Jones motioned toward the student section, raising his arms high above his head. With more students still in attendance than what may have been expected after halftime in a game where neither team had scored a touchdown, the section responded in kind, bouncing with more energy than it had shown all game.
The scene on both sides made one thing abundantly clear.
Peoples-Jones had arrived.