For the second game in a row, the fate of the No. 16 Michigan football team came down to the game’s final play. But this time, against Minnesota, the Wolverines came out on top, stuffing the Golden Gophers at the goal line as time expired. The win was a welcome reprieve from Michigan’s despair after the Wolverines fell to Michigan State on the failed punt attempt two weeks ago.
It also kept alive Michigan’s Big Ten title hopes, however faint. It brought the Little Brown Jug back to Ann Arbor, too.
Here are five things we learned from Saturday’s game:
1. Michigan can respond to adversity.
For everything the Wolverines had done this season in terms of exceeding expectations, one question loomed large after Michigan’s crushing defeat at the hands of Michigan State two weeks ago: How would the Wolverines respond to adversity?
In previous years under former coach Brady Hoke, Michigan allowed one tough loss to create a snowball effect that turned into others. The Wolverines looked to avoid that fate Saturday.
Though Michigan did suffer some lapses, the Wolverines did not break. They faced even more adversity Saturday than they had anticipated with the loss of fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock, but they overcame that, too. Speaking of stepping up to overcome adversity…
2. Wilton Speight is no slouch.
The redshirt freshman quarterback proved Saturday that he can be a viable option for Michigan in the future. He entered the game in a difficult situation following Rudock’s third-quarter injury. The Wolverines trailed and needed a spark.
Speight did not provide it initially. The first three meaningful passes of his Michigan career were incomplete. But later on, when the Wolverines took the ball on the Golden Gophers’ 40-yard line, he came through in a big way. Speight completed three consecutive pass attempts, the last of which was a play-action touchdown to redshirt junior wide receiver Jehu Chesson.
The drive was even more impressive given the conditions. Speight directed Michigan’s offense into Minnesota’s student section, which was rambunctious the entire game, especially in the fourth quarter. Though Speight was far from perfect, the poise he displayed in giving his team the lead was impressive.
3. Jabrill Peppers will be a regular part of the offense going forward.
When the redshirt freshman safety first appeared on Michigan’s offense against Michigan State, it could have been the result of two things: That the Wolverines needed an extra spark against a strong opponent, or simply that Peppers was going to become a regular part of the offense as the season progressed.
Saturday’s game proved the latter was correct when Peppers appeared regularly on the offensive side of the ball. His numbers weren’t gaudy. Peppers rushed for 16 yards on four carries, including his first career touchdown. But just like he was against the Spartans, Peppers was a weapon every time he stepped onto the field.
He lined up as a wildcat quarterback on multiple occasions, a threat to run even when the defense knew where he was going.
Peppers was a force on special teams as well. He had a 41-yard punt return deep into Minnesota territory at the beginning of the second quarter. Only Golden Gophers punter Peter Mortell could bring him down.
Look for Peppers to continue adding an extra element to Michigan’s offense as the Big Ten season continues.
4. Even Michigan’s defense is susceptible to the occasional breakdown.
In the three consecutive shutouts before the Wolverines played Michigan State, Michigan’s defense looked nearly impenetrable. The Wolverines did not only prevent teams from scoring, but they did not even allow them the hope of scoring.
The game against the Spartans showed some cracks in the armor, but many of those could be attributed to Michigan State’s experienced offense.
But Michigan’s defense was once again imperfect in Saturday’s game. Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner threw for 317 yards, though he completed just 16 of his 33 passes. Many of the successful attempts seemed to be the result of Leidner chucking the ball into the air and hoping for the best, but they still resulted in major chunks of yards, a fact that did not thrill members of the Wolverines’ defense.
5. Bold Prediction: Peppers will finish the season with at least four touchdowns.
The fact that Peppers scored his first collegiate touchdown Saturday was not the only evidence of success to come. In fact, he probably could have scored three more.
One chance came on the long punt return, when evading the punter would have resulted in the touchdown. Another came on a dropped interception, when Peppers used his speed to get his hands on the ball with a clear field ahead of him before the pick fell through his hands. An opportunity for a second offensive touchdown also arose, when Peppers nearly broke a shoestring tackle around midfield with open field in front of him.
For now, Peppers was happy to get into the end zone once. But in the future, the touchdowns will come in multiples.