Jabrill Peppers jogged onto the field as Michigan offense began its second series, and Rutgers was ready for it. After six offensive touches for 51 yards and a touchdown over his last two games, Peppers was a secret no more. Fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock took the snap, and the entire defense flocked toward Peppers.
He was a decoy. With most of the Scarlet Knights in the backfield, Michigan senior fullback Sione Houma escaped into the flat for a 32-yard reception.
“(Peppers) presents something that you need to watch,” Rudock said. “If we can use him to get him the ball, great. If we can use him as a decoy to get somebody else the ball, that’s great too. He understands that, too. … You just love a guy like that, who just really wants to win the game regardless of what happens.”
The rest of the game went much like that play: The Wolverines were one step ahead of Rutgers, scoring on five straight possessions in the first half and rolling to a 49-16 victory at Michigan Stadium on Saturday.
Two plays after Houma’s catch, Rudock finished off the drive with a 13-yard touchdown pass over the middle to redshirt junior wide receiver Jehu Chesson. He started the game after leaving last Saturday’s contest at Minnesota following a hard hit, and he responded with his best game of the season, completing 18 of 25 passes for 337 yards and two touchdowns.
After the Wolverines held Rutgers to a field goal, the offense went to work on a nine-play, 58-yard drive that lasted 4:28 and ended with Rudock’s four-yard touchdown scramble. When the defense forced a three-and-out, Michigan had a chance to make it 21-3 and put the game away. This time, Peppers played the main role.
On 2nd-and-13 from the Rutgers 18, Rudock tossed the ball to him on a bubble screen. The Scarlet Knights sniffed out the screen in the backfield, but Peppers made a quick move past one defender and eluded the rest to scamper in for an 18-yard touchdown.
“I thought that play was trapped behind the line of scrimmage,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “The move he made, and then where he weaved himself through there, I knew he was good, but he’s really good. I thought there was not another rung to go on the ladder, but there is. He found another rung to go even higher.
“I told him that. I said, ‘You’re really good.’ ”
As a whole, the Wolverines’ offense piled up 487 total yards, 304 in the first half, during which it held the ball for 18:51 and ran 32 of 42 plays at midfield or in Rutgers territory.
Over the course of the game, the unit exhausted Rutgers’ defense. After the Scarlet Knights’ Janarion Grant returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown to trim the deficit to 21-10, he also forced the defense back onto the field.
The Wolverines moved the ball at will again, this time scoring on redshirt junior running back Drake Johnson’s one-yard run. Michigan closed out its scoring for the half when Darboh pulled in a pass from Rudock in the end zone just before going out of bounds.
When play resumed, Rudock found junior tight end Jake Butt for a 56-yard catch-and-run on the Wolverines’ first offensive play. Junior running back De’Veon Smith punched it in for the score, and Rudock ran for a two-point conversion to make it 43-16 and further sap the Scarlet Knights’ energy.
Rutgers (1-5, 3-6) mustered just three field goals aside from the kick-return touchdown. The last came as the first half expired after a 67-yard punt return by Grant. Still, the Scarlet Knights became the third team in four games to leave Michigan Stadium without an offensive touchdown.
They faced an uphill battle from the outset playing without star wide receiver Leonte Carroo, and Michigan junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis didn’t make it any easier on them. He broke up two passes, giving him 19 for the season and passing former Wolverines Marlin Jackson and Leon Hall for the school record.
Senior safety Jarrod Wilson added an interception late in the second quarter. The defensive line made four sacks despite playing most of the game without redshirt junior Ryan Glasgow, who injured his shoulder in the first quarter. Harbaugh said after the game he was hopeful that it was a strain and not a tear.
Smith, who limped off the field in the fourth quarter at Minnesota, finished with 15 carries for 73 yards and a touchdown. Peppers was also battling a thigh contusion after colliding with redshirt junior cornerback Jeremy Clark in practice Friday.
And while Rudock said after the game that nobody is 100-percent healthy this late in the season, the Wolverines looked as close to their top form as they could be.