As the world waits to hear whether Wilton Speight or John O’Korn will start at quarterback for Michigan against Ohio State, there is a good possibility Saturday’s game will be decided by something other than who’s under center.
To have a chance, the Wolverines will need more out of the quarterback than they got against Indiana, when O’Korn completed just seven of 16 passes for 59 yards. But the more compelling battle will be between Jabrill Peppers and Curtis Samuel.
Both are do-it-all players for their respective teams, with Samuel a versatile force on the Buckeyes’ offense and Peppers roaming the entire field for Michigan. Both would have darkhorse cases for the Heisman Trophy if Louisville’s Lamar Jackson had not all but wrapped up the award already. And with Peppers expected to see heavy time on offense in a must-win game for the Wolverines, there could be times on Saturday where they seem to be locked in a hyper-athletic call and response.
There’s even a good possibility they could match up against each other directly. Peppers works as a linebacker, nickelback and safety on defense, which means he could be tasked with covering Samuel out of the backfield or split out. And if he does, he’ll be responsible for mitigating the constant threat Samuel poses.
“People just, they lose their technique, they forget about their technique … when they’re looking at a great athlete,” said senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis. “They just throw it out the window and just like, ‘Let me get this guy covered,’ and not think about their technique. So that’s really one of the reasons he’s one of the best, because he’s so athletic and he can get in and out of his break so fast.”
Through 11 games this season, Samuel has been used heavily as both a running back and a receiver. He has 84 rushes for 650 yards, seven touchdowns and a staggering 7.7 yards per carry. He also has 61 catches for 790 yards and seven touchdowns, each of which would lead Michigan’s entire team.
While those numbers are no doubt intimidating, there is a silver lining buried in them. If the Wolverines can find a way to slow down Samuel — easily the most dangerous playmaker they have faced this season — they would be in great position to win. Lewis said he expects to cover Samuel some on Saturday, which is a good indication Michigan will throw everything it has at him. And that could include Peppers.
“I’ve been watching Curtis for a while,” Peppers said. “ … Phenomenal athlete, strong guy, great hands. But you go into it like you go (into covering) anybody else. Line up. Be fundamental. Trust your technique and let your athleticism make the plays.”
Peppers should have an outsize impact on the game himself. His defensive numbers are not as gaudy as they were early in the season, when he jockeyed for the national lead in tackles for loss, but he still boasts an impressive 15 on the year.
And while shutting down Samuel would be an invaluable contribution, Peppers will likely also need to make an impact on offense.
After a massive breakout game against Rutgers, teams have keyed in on Peppers when he’s been in the game. It hasn’t been effective enough to stifle him completely, but he has seen a slight decrease in big plays over the second half of the season.
It would be natural to assume Michigan was saving Peppers’ energy for this week. But he’s never had a reputation as someone with limited energy.
“There was one situation last spring ball during our four-hour practices when Coach Harbaugh first got here where we were all beat up, exhausted after a four-hour practice,” said senior tight end Jake Butt, “and it was like the middle of spring ball, so it was when it was really starting to hit us, and we were in a full padded practice. It was about the three-hour mark and Jabrill returned a punt during a punt drill, returned it like 40 yards, and then when he was jogging back to go return another one he did like a cartwheel, back handspring, backflip 360 in full pads.
“I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t even believe you just did that.’ ”
Those are the stories legends are made of, but in a matter of days, Peppers will likely meet someone who can match him. For every big hit or shifty return by Peppers, it will be just as important to stop a long run by Samuel.
In a game that has Big Ten, national and maybe even Heisman implications, those stars will loom large. As Peppers and Samuel go, so could The Game.