Chris Perry’s legs carried him to a pretty decent first three years at Michigan. It’s apparently another muscle entirely that’s fueling him this season.
“Chris is running with his heart, he’s not running with his legs,” offensive tackle Tony Pape said. “I think that’s the big change he made this year.”
The rap on Perry used to be that he ran straight into defenders, rather than cutting or juking his way to extra yards. Saturday, he ran around, over and through people. On a third-down play in the third quarter, when a Notre Dame defender stood in his path, Perry just hurdled the guy like it was high school track practice. And that’s the second time he’s done that this season.
Perry bulldozed his way through the Fighting Irish’s defense for 133 yards and three touchdowns, and he added a touchdown reception – the first of his career.
And these weren’t easy yards, either. Perry had more carries then all of his teammates combined, so the Irish had to know a running play meant No. 23 was getting the ball. But they couldn’t stop him. Perry just kept chugging. He got yards after the catch, yards after contact, yards just for fun.
Perry is clearly giving extra effort in his senior season. Not many of his carries are flashy, breakout runs going the length of the field. The 6-foot-1, 218-pound tailback has earned his yards by relentlessly pounding defenses. He averaged just 4.3 yards per carry against the Irish, but they added up, partly because he wasn’t once caught behind the line of scrimmage. And his gains were important. Perry has become the man Michigan counts on not only for touchdowns, but also for grinding out first downs.
Perry put up huge numbers in Michigan’s first two games, too. But those were against two teams (Central Michigan and Houston) just hoping to get out of the Big House alive.
Saturday was different.
This was a rivalry game, and – considering Michigan’s recent tendency to lose nonconference games and hurt its national title chances early – one that the Wolverines needed to win. And that’s why Perry’s performance was so important for Michigan. Perry hasn’t always shown up in big games – he ran for more than 100 yards in each of the Wolverines’ first two games last season, but his numbers dropped in the loss to Notre Dame in South Bend.
This time, the Wolverines came out and made a statement against their oldest rival, and Perry was the keynote speaker. Perry took off on Michigan’s first play of the game – a 14-yard screen to the left – and it seemed like he never stopped.
“When you block for a great running back like Chris, you see him going down field making safeties miss, running them over and everything like that,” offensive tackle Adam Stenavich said. “You just know he’s a playmaker, and if you give him a chance he’ll make plays.”
That kind of go-to guy is what Michigan’s offense has been missing, and Perry’s play so far this season has said that he is finally ready to take on that role. In the first three games, Perry has rushed for 549 yards, nearly half of his total for all of last season (1,110 yards). And he has made it halfway to his 14 touchdowns of last season.
Stenavich and Pape, who have been creating many of the holes Perry has run through, had plenty of praise for their tailback. They wouldn’t say that Perry is a Heisman candidate, but a lot of other people will after Saturday’s game.
Perry, meanwhile, didn’t have much to say about himself after the game, making it sound like he was barely doing any of the work, and pointing out that he did fumble the ball in the second quarter. According to Perry, the credit for his schooling of opposing defenses goes to: “The offensive line, receivers, John (Navarre) and the fullbacks. And the tight ends too.
“When they make holes like that, I have no choice but to run through them.”
There’s no doubt Michigan’s line has been superb this season, and Navarre has been able to keep defenses from focusing solely on Perry. But defensive tackle Grant Bowman had a different theory about why Perry is tearing up the turf.
“He’s a warrior and the thing about him, he’s a great player very talented but absolutely a team guy first,” Bowman said. “I think he cares about this team probably more than anybody on it. He just wants to see us succeed, and that’s why he’s running so hard – because he’s running for all of us, not just himself.”
That could be a lot of weight to shoulder, but judging by the way Perry has run so far, he could carry his team and rush for a first down on third and eight.
Courtney Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org