PISCATAWAY — Jabrill Peppers danced his way for 44 yards, breaking loose from at least four Rutgers defenders and ducking under another to return a punt to the house. He spun away from players as he ran, dodging defenders seemingly without even looking on his way to the end zone.
Fortunately for the Scarlet Knights (0-3 Big Ten, 2-6 overall), the touchdown was called back.
But it was only the first quarter, and things were about to get much worse for Rutgers, largely due to Peppers’ capabilities. The Wolverines (3-0, 6-0) laid it on thick, shutting out the Scarlet Knights 78-0 in Michigan’s first road game of the season.
Peppers may be the best college football player in the country, and while Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh almost never makes comparisons, he did Saturday night:
“If there was a bible sitting right here, I would put my hand on it and say that I have not coached a more versatile player than Jabrill Peppers.”
Added Peppers: “I really don’t know how I did that, but it felt good. It felt good.”
Though the punt return was arguably Peppers’ most flashy play of the game, it didn’t count. He said he didn’t dwell on it, but he did make sure that all of his other efforts amounted to something on his way to 74 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
Playing at Rutgers was a homecoming for Peppers, who grew up 30 miles northeast of Piscataway in East Orange, N.J. He showed love to his family tonight just two minutes before halftime, after his second touchdown of the game.
He lined up at wildcat quarterback, something he did multiple times on Saturday, for what was supposed to be a pass play. (Yes, he can throw, too.) But instead, he saw his opportunity to run it all the way out to the left corner of the end zone. After the score, he trotted over to Rutgers’ cannon in the corner of the field and pointed upward.
At first glance, it looked like he was mocking the Scarlet Knights tradition, but instead, he was pointing up to his mom.
Peppers collected tickets from his teammates in order to make sure family and friends could see him play. For a lot of them, it was their first opportunity to see him play in person since he graduated from high school. He didn’t disappoint.
“Whenever you get the chance to get the ball in your hands, you know, you want to make something (positive) happen,” Peppers said. “Today, I guess, God had his hand on me today. Some of those plays, I can’t really describe, and I just gotta give it all to the blocking and the coaching scheme.”
Just over a minute before Peppers’ punt return was called back, he sprinted 64 yards down the left sideline, which set up for Michigan’s first touchdown of the game. Peppers lined up at quarterback in that play as well, with redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight positioned over at wide receiver.
As Speight jogged on the opposite side of the field, he couldn’t help but realize Peppers’ talent.
“As he was running, I was like, ‘This kid looks like a guy I created in NCAA on my Xbox,’ ” Speight said.
Sometimes, it does seem like he’s a player in a video game. On that play, he wasn’t even supposed to be the ball carrier, but when the running back ran the wrong way, he quickly decided to just take off with the ball. It wasn’t a special design that allowed Peppers to break free for 64 yards, but he made it look like a well-executed plan instead of an unscripted move.
He did all of this while having fun, dancing on the field and congratulating his teammates on their successes.
Long after Peppers had exited the game, fifth-year senior fullback Bobby Henderson ran in a 13-yard touchdown. Peppers beckoned to the fullback, another native of New Jersey, and the two chest bumped.
“To have a guy who not only is this good at football, but you hear him talking right now,” Speight said. “It isn’t just for the cameras. It’s behind closed doors. He’s a great teammate.”
After playing in all three phases of the game, Peppers was one of the last Wolverines to exit the field, giving out high-fives to fans as he walked up the tunnel. He left an impression in Piscataway, and Harbaugh thinks he’s left one on the rest of the country as well.
“He was just so much faster (than any other player) — did it look that way to you?” Harbaugh said. “He was just so athletic and so fast. It was really, really, really impressive. Gosh, if there’s a better player in the country, I want to know who it is. I know there’s a lot of great players out there, but this guy …
“In my humble opinion, we’re looking at a Heisman Trophy winner.”