Most Michigan fans already knew that redshirt sophomore linebacker Jabrill Peppers was the football equivalent of a Swiss Army knife, but Saturday’s win over Colorado might have been the finest example of just how much he can do.
Playing all three phases for the first time this season, Peppers picked up a career-high 204 all-purpose yards, nine tackles (a career-high 3.5 for loss), a sack and a fourth-quarter 54-yard punt return touchdown that almost felt like an inevitability after all he had accomplished to that point in the game.
“Above it all, Jabrill Peppers proved he was the best player today, in today’s game,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “We don’t win that game without Jabrill Peppers.”
After the Buffaloes jumped out to a 21-7 lead in the first quarter, it was Peppers who almost single-handedly kept the Wolverines in the game. Returning both kickoffs and punts, Peppers racked up 170 return yards and gave Michigan great field position on nearly all of its drives.
He was even more of a force on defense as one of the highlighted players in defensive coordinator Don Brown’s blitz-heavy scheme. Harbaugh has often said that Peppers is capable of getting to a quarterback in less than a second, and he did just that when he ran unblocked through the line of scrimmage and dropped Colorado backup quarterback Steven Montez to the turf for an 11-yard sack late in the third quarter.
“He really showed you his toughness, his athleticism,” Harbaugh said. “Some hits that were momentum-changing hits in this game.”
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight has seen plenty of Peppers on defense in practice, and he said Saturday that he was just thankful that quarterbacks aren’t “live” during fall camp so Peppers couldn’t actually hit him.
Speight later added that he has never played with or against anyone that can be as much of a force on all sides of the ball as Peppers can.
“I think every single thought he has is just about destroying the opponent,” Speight said. “He’s got that mindset that few people do. I think every single play he wants to chop someone in half and make sure that they can’t walk for a couple minutes.”
While Peppers didn’t do much playing offense for the first time this season (two carries, 24 yards), Speight thinks Peppers’ vision and cutting ability make it reasonable to compare him to Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey.
The play Peppers looked most like McCaffrey, however, was on his first-ever special-teams touchdown in the fourth quarter. With a wide open hole in the middle of the field, Peppers broke one tackle and made another defender miss before scampering into the left side of the end zone, bringing Michigan’s lead up to the final score of 45-28. It was the final big blow to the Buffaloes, and it lifted a monkey off Peppers’ back after he came up just short of the end zone on many returns both this season and last.
“It was definitely a sense of relief,” Peppers said. “I felt like a couple of those punts I could have had — I could’ve taken one back. But (Colorado is) a great tackling team, they were shooting the hip, wrapping up. But when you get a line drive and great blocking, if you don’t score then, they gotta put somebody else back there. That’s just how I felt. The hole was wide open. … I started cramping about the five (yard line), but I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m not getting in this time.’ ”