PISCATAWAY — There was a turning point, Jim Harbaugh said.
That’s not something you often hear in a game like Saturday’s. In fact, it’s not often you see a game like Saturday’s.
The Michigan football team scored 78 points, twice the number of total yards it allowed to Rutgers. In case it doesn’t go without saying, the Wolverines shut out the Scarlet Knights (0-3 Big Ten, 2-4 overall) on their own field Saturday, winning 78-0 and driving out a heavy majority of the fans well before the final whistle.
But about that turning point. Harbaugh said it came when Jabrill Peppers — his redshirt sophomore linebacker, running back, wildcat quarterback and punt returner — ripped off a 63-yard run to the Scarlet Knights’ 4-yard line. That was about seven minutes into the game.
And the game turned, all right. It turned from a game that saw No. 4 Michigan (3-0, 6-0) open with two three-and-outs and a lost fumble into the Wolverines’ third most lopsided win of all time. It turned from a game predicted to be a blowout to a bona fide laugher. After the game, fifth-year senior right tackle Erik Magnuson said that Michigan doesn’t always score 11 touchdowns in practice.
“There’ll be practices where we hardly score at all,” Magnuson said. “…I’ve never seen anything like this.”
To be fair, neither have most people. After Peppers’ 63-yard run, redshirt junior running back Ty Isaac finished the job with a rushing touchdown. On the next drive, redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight stepped up and threw a 30-yard touchdown to a diving Jehu Chesson.
As the play was developing, Harbaugh wanted Speight to just take off and run. He wondered aloud what he was doing.
“(Passing game coordinator) Jedd Fisch said over the headphones, ‘He’s throwing a touchdown,’ ” Harbaugh said.
It was Speight’s only touchdown on a day he completed 6-for-13 passes for 100 yards. He didn’t play in the second half because his team didn’t need him to.
In Peppers’ return to his home state of New Jersey, Harbaugh unleashed the player he later said should win the Heisman Trophy. Peppers scored two rushing touchdowns after lining up as the quarterback, once when his running back went the wrong way and once on a play designed for him to pass. He would have had a third touchdown had his first-quarter punt-return touchdown not been waived off after a block in the back penalty.
By the time Khalid Hill plunged in from the 1-yard line to go put the Wolverines up 27-0, the game looked well on its way to being over.
But Harbaugh decided to expedite the process. Instead of kicking the extra point on Hill’s touchdown, holder Garrett Moores kept the ball and ran into the end zone himself.
“It’s just something we had practiced all week,” Harbaugh later explained. “We saw a look that we thought we could get a two-point conversion on. We had it called each of the extra points (before that), we didn’t call it after that fourth touchdown, but it was dialed up and called off the first three times.”
The fourth time, they executed it. On the next drive, Michigan went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, with Hill punching it in again. Peppers scored another touchdown on the next drive, giving Michigan a 43-0 lead at the half. Fans left the stadium en masse.
Mark Hubal was one fan heading out the exit at halftime, but on his way out, he said he wasn’t upset the Wolverines went for two.
“Harbaugh’s gonna Harbaugh,” he said.
In the second half, though, perhaps Harbaugh Harbaughed a little less. He took most of the starters out for nearly the entire second half, and while Michigan still racked up 35 points, it did not seem to be for show.
Even with the reserves in, the Wolverines’ final numbers were jaw-dropping. Michigan outgained Rutgers 600 yards to 39, and 481 of those yards were on the ground. It held the Scarlet Knights to five pass yards on two completions, one of which went for a loss. The Wolverines’ defense had 13 tackles for loss and four sacks, and again, this was with most of the starters on the bench for half the game.
“What we kept noticing was that the clock was moving so slow,” Hill said. “Like everybody was like, by the third quarter, like, ‘Yo, what’s up? Like, dang.’ Then we just kept putting points on the board.”
Magnuson, though, found a special meaning in the specific margin of victory. The 78 points by which Michigan won matches his jersey number, and in his final college season, he took notice.
“I would’ve been so upset,” he joked, “if we scored again.”