With three minutes left in the third quarter, the crowd at Michigan Stadium breathed a sigh of relief.
Grant Perry, meanwhile, was celebrating with his teammates. The junior receiver had just caught a slant before outrunning Cincinnati’s secondary to the end zone, giving his team a 10-point lead and some much-needed breathing room.
Perry is far from perfect. He’s shorter than the average receiver and hasn’t been a consistent threat in the deep passing game. At times, he can celebrate too zealously — such as against Florida, when he picked up an unsportsmanlike penalty for spinning the ball after a catch. And, most strikingly, he was suspended from the team for an altercation last fall that saw him put on probation after pleading guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery and a felony of resisting arrest.
Saturday, though, he was Wilton Speight and Michigan’s safety blanket, tallying 4 catches for 66 yards and a touchdown. It’s a role he’s perfectly suited for.
Perry may not have the physical attributes of Tarik Black or Donovan Peoples-Jones. What he lacks in pure athleticism, he makes up for by succeeding at the little things — such as route running or making fair catches.
Look no further than in the third quarter, when Perry was inserted at punt returner after several harrowing returns from Peoples-Jones. Jim Harbaugh and Michigan wanted someone to count on; someone who wouldn’t make Harbaugh grab his head with both hands in frustration or change the balance of the game with a crucial error.
So they called on Perry. He wasn’t as flashy as his predecessor and didn’t return any punts. But he provided his team with some measure of steadiness, making the right decision each time.
“There’s experience that needs to take place there,” Harbaugh said, “and we felt like we wanted to go with the guy who had a little bit more time on task and a little more experience. It was just that simple.”
And asides from special teams, Perry was a consistent threat in the passing game. He’s savvy enough to get clean releases and he’s quick enough to shake defenders. There’s enough nuance in his route-running that even when it appears an opponent has played perfect coverage, Perry still finds a way to get open for his quarterback — something that sophomore defensive back Khaleke Hudson has seen plenty of in practice.
“He’s quick off the line,” Hudson said. “He’s fast when he catches the ball. He’s going to be huge for us this year, and he’s a great player.
“Quickness, speed, everything. Just knowing leverage and where he could beat a man. He’s just a great player. Can’t say nothing bad about him at all.”
Saturday afternoon, Speight looked for his favorite target six times. Each was a high-leverage situation.
Speight threw at Perry on four third downs, including an incompletion that upon review looked like a catch. The other two targets were an 18-yard completion on 2nd-and-15, and that crucial third-quarter touchdown that put the game out of Cincinnati’s reach — perhaps the best example of the rapport that Speight and Perry have developed over time.
“It started back in summer, when coaches weren’t allowed to be around,” Perry said. “We went 2, 3, 4 times a day, and just worked that. And eventually it graduated into camp, and then the season it started to show that the work we put in is paying off.”
Perry said after the game how playing as a freshman in 2015 helped him because he made a lot of mistakes that he learned from. Those mistakes occasionally had disastrous results. But now, Perry says he sees mistakes before they happen — and he can see big plays, as well.
“Pre-snap, I actually thought the ball was going to go to Ian (Bunting) who was inside of me, because that look for him, that route had been open for most of the game,” Perry said. “And then it just cleared out, and me and Wilton made eye contact, he threw it, and there was nothing but yards.”
On a day when Michigan’s offense sputtered, that made all the difference. And Perry’s quarterback was certainly grateful for it.
“He took a pass to the house,” Speight said, “and made me look good.”