When the Michigan football team faced its first Power Five opponent of the season on Saturday against Colorado, most fans probably expected to see a few flaws emerge in the Wolverines. Granted, they probably didn’t expect them to go down 14-0 and 21-7 in the first quarter, but superior talent prevailed in the end, as Michigan outscored the Buffaloes, 38-7, in the final three quarters to take a decisive 45-28 victory.
Still, the fourth-ranked Wolverines (3-0) now look like a team with considerably more weaknesses than it showed the last two weeks. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has said his favorite weeks are ones where the Wolverines win comfortably and still have things they can improve. This week, he’ll have that chance again.
Here are five things we learned from Michigan’s final non-conference game of the season.
1. Jabrill Peppers is no longer an “almost” guy.
Redshirt sophomore linebacker Jabrill Peppers has been touted as a lethal threat in all three phases of the game since before he arrived on campus. And though he starred as a safety, return man and offensive weapon for the Wolverines in 2015, he failed to record a special teams touchdown in his first full collegiate season.
That weight was lifted off Peppers’ back Saturday, when he dodged two tacklers and took a 54-yard punt return to the house in the fourth quarter. After a number of potential touchdowns came up short over the last year — he says being tackled by Minnesota’s punter last season still “haunts” him — Peppers expressed relief after the game to no longer be considered “an ‘almost’ kind of guy.” The score was the icing on the cake for Peppers in a game in which he tallied 204 all-purpose yards and 3.5 tackles for loss.
2. Michigan’s secondary is beatable without Jourdan Lewis.
Through the first two games without injured senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis, the Wolverines’ secondary looked more than capable of making up for his absence. But when Colorado came to Ann Arbor with a flock of talented receivers, things took a turn for the worse for Michigan’s defensive backs.
After doing a great job protecting the deep ball against Hawaii and Central Florida, the Wolverines allowed a 50-yard pass to Bryce Bobo, a 37-yard touchdown to Devin Ross (who scored twice) and a 70-yard strike to Shay Fields. And it wasn’t one single Michigan player being targeted the entire afternoon — senior cornerback Channing Stribling, fifth-year senior Jeremy Clark and senior safeties Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill all were beaten at different times.
For the first time all season, the Wolverines really missed Lewis’ All-American presence on the field.
3. The offensive line has plenty of room for improvement.
After struggling to protect the run last week against a heavily stacked box by Central Florida, Michigan’s offensive line had trouble with pass blocking this week. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight got through his first two games as a starter relatively pain-free, but he was constantly under duress in the first quarter against Colorado. Speight was sacked three times and appeared rattled early on, completing just three of his first 12 passes and totaling just 25 yards.
He ultimately settled down, throwing for 229 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions (despite a number of passes that made contact with defenders), but he certainly could have benefitted from some better pass protection.
On the flip side, the Wolverines’ run game was markedly better, as senior running back De’Veon Smith broke free for a 42-yard touchdown and the backs tallied 168 yards as a group, even with the 22 yards lost by Speight sacks. Michigan has the talent to beat teams even if the ground game or passing game is neutralized, but an improved offensive line might help the Wolverines craft a more balanced attack.
4. The kicking unit’s rhythm needs fine-tuning.
After fifth-year senior Kenny Allen had an uncharacteristically poor game on Saturday, going 1-for-3 on field goals and booting a few below-average punts early, it was apparent that something was slightly off with Michigan’s kicking unit.
After the game, Harbaugh pointed to a slight timing problem, also mentioning that redshirt junior Scott Sypniewski might have overcompensated for a few high snaps in warmups by snapping the ball too low during the game.
“Go back and look at it, but (since last year) our operation with the snap, hold, and the kick has been as good as any in college football,” Harbaugh said. “The snap’s been over the spot, laces at 6:00, ball through the middle of the upright on the kick.
“Today it was off. Snaps were low, laces were at 12 (o’clock), Kenny was hot and cold a little bit on kicks — kickoffs and punts, and the kicks.”
5. BOLD PREDICTION: Peppers scores an offensive touchdown and special teams touchdown in the same game this season.
Since Peppers first committed to Michigan in 2013, he has drawn comparisons to another elite three-way player for the Wolverines: former Heisman Trophy winner and likely future NFL Hall of Famer Charles Woodson. And Saturday night, Speight compared Peppers’ offensive skills to an elite runner and return specialist, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey.
Now that Peppers has scored a special teams touchdown and played offense for the first time this season, he could be poised to achieve one of McCaffrey’s biggest accomplishments: scoring in multiple phases in the same game. If Harbaugh uses Peppers on offense in big games like he did last season — and if Peppers adopts Woodson’s flair for the dramatic — the feat could come against a huge rival like Michigan State or Ohio State.