BLOOMINGTON — Jake Rudock sat before the media with the same dusty blonde hair, the same lanky frame and the same eye black-laden face that he always has after games.
But this time, it was different. This time, the fifth-year senior quarterback didn’t have to roll his eyes and smile at questions about him being average, or being just a game manager, or how much more of the playbook he still had to learn.
This time, he didn’t have to justify his place under center, because his performance had already done that. From the opening touchdown to the go-ahead score in the Michigan football team’s win over Indiana, Rudock wasn’t a game manager — he was a star.
His numbers were as wild as the double-overtime win: 33-for-46, 440 yards and six touchdowns. The six touchdowns were the most in school history, elevating Rudock — at least for a night — above 20 quarterbacks who shared the record before with four touchdowns in a single game.
“Going to a great school like the University of Michigan, you expect guys to have phenomenal games,” Rudock said. “It’s just humbling to make it on the list.”
The record book will note the game as one of the best in program history, but the numbers only tell part of Rudock’s story. The Wolverines had long drives, short drives, bad drives and good drives.
But for every drive, Jake Rudock was Jake Rudock, and that was all the Wolverines needed.
“If Jake doesn’t play the way he does, we don’t stand a chance,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “All those attributes — talk about his accuracy, talk about his arm strength, talk about his durability, his toughness, his intelligence — but I still go back to that one: He’s unflappable. He just does not flinch.”
Rudock didn’t flinch during the shootout Saturday, keeping Michigan together despite a defensive meltdown on the road, but he wouldn’t have been in that situation at all if he had never flinched. Booed off stage and replaced by C.J. Beathard at Iowa, Rudock came to Michigan looking for an escape and a fresh start.
He would only have one year to learn a new coaching system, new player tendencies and how to win with a different team, but the opportunity for some peace on the football field was worth it.
“The biggest thing is just going out and playing football again,” Rudock said over the summer. “Coming into the stadium and not getting booed at, but getting cheered for. That’s a big difference.”
Yet even when Michigan won and the fans cheered, Rudock didn’t get the peace he was looking for. Instead, Rudock’s mediocre numbers drew more ire than solace.
Every overthrown deep ball drew questions about his capabilities as a starter; every check-down pass highlighted a potential lack in confidence as a leader; every turnover left fans wondering whether Rudock was going to help the Wolverines win, or just keep the seat warm until a quarterback who could came along.
His coaches and teammates insisted Rudock was the man, while fans waited for it to show on the field. Many wondered if any of Michigan’s four other scholarship quarterbacks could do a better job.
That discussion was reignited on Oct. 31 when, after Rudock left the Minnesota game early due to a rib injury, redshirt freshman Wilton Speight stepped in and led the Wolverines to a comeback win.
Suddenly, with an uncertain timetable for returning from injury, Rudock’s legacy with Michigan was as uncertain as ever.
But as quickly as he came out, Rudock was back under center the next week against Rutgers. With seemingly no lingering pain from the injury, the senior breezed his way to a career-high 337 yards in the cushy 49-16 win.
But a week later, it became clear early on that Indiana wasn’t going to lie down like the Scarlet Knights. The Hoosiers found the holes in Michigan’s defense, previously the best in the country, and scored 41 points — 15 more than any other team this season. Indiana also found a way to stifle the Wolverines’ battered running game, holding their running backs to 82 yards in the game.
So that left the game in Rudock’s hands, and after hours of trying to make things work at Michigan, something clicked, and the quarterback put on another show.
Rudock added 64 yards of gutsy rushing yards to earn 504 yards of offense. He finally connected with redshirt junior wide receiver Jehu Chesson — who had been building a rapport with Rudock since helping him get a summer job and inviting him to play Monopoly in his apartment in June — on deep balls, guiding Chesson to a school record of four touchdown receptions to go with 207 receiving yards.
And most of all, Rudock showed that jumping through hoops to get the Michigan starting job paid off, leading a game-tying drive with two seconds left before capping off his night with two overtime touchdown drives to outpace Indiana for good.
“His throws were on target, our timing was good, he made it easy,” Chesson said. “He made it easy for us, and it’s hard to top what he did.”
Added Harbaugh: “It doesn’t matter what the situation is. He’s got ice water in his veins. It’s very impressive.”
So when Rudock sat before the media Saturday night and kept the same calm expression he always does, things were different than before.
Rudock had carried a lost team, kept Michigan’s Big Ten championship hopes alive, and made sure that his place in Michigan lore was the same as his play on the field — unflappable.