TAMPA, Fla. – On the night before games, the Wolverines often gather at the team hotel, sprawl out on the floor and watch a movie.
And junior tailback Chris Perry has a quirky habit of stealing teammates’ pillows.
But on New Year’s Day, Perry stole the show. He set Outback Bowl and modern era Michigan bowl game records by scoring four touchdowns. Perry, the game’s Most Valuable Player, showed glimpses of becoming the multi-threat back that his coaches have been craving.
He nabbed a career-high six catches for 108 yards, while grinding out tough yards on the ground, finishing with 85 yards on a career-high 28 carries.
“I told Chris before the game, ‘If you’re not MVP of this game, we’re not going to win,’ ” Michigan running backs’ coach Fred Jackson said.
Part of Perry’s heavy load was due to game planning, while the rest was out of necessity. Jackson’s prediction of the Wolverines’ reliance on Perry seemed to be ominously vindicated on the first play of the game, when fullback B.J. Askew broke his right hand.
As Michigan coach Lloyd Carr recalled, Askew told him: ‘Coach, I can’t catch the ball, I can’t run it, but I can block.”
Perry then got his chance to expose the Gators’ defense as a receiver, catching several screen passes and dump-offs from quarterback John Navarre and turning them into sizable gains. Jackson said Perry was also depended upon to take some carries from Askew and get the tough yards near the goalline, including a crucial fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. That’s when another second effort by Perry gave Michigan a 14-13 lead in the second quarter.
It was fitting that Perry was fulfilling some fullback duties since it was Jackson’s threat of moving him to that position that kept Perry’s weight down all season. Perry’s weight was a factor in his lack of effectiveness last season, and Jackson made sure it wouldn’t hinder the junior from being the 25-carry back he always knew he could be. Perry just had to gain Jackson’s confidence and trust that he could handle the responsibilities and not let injuries nag him all season.
“I kept telling him if he’s 225, I’d have to put his ass at fullback,” Jackson said. “And he didn’t like that.”
After a 1,110-yard season on the ground and leading the Wolverines with 14 touchdowns, the 221-pound Perry earned the respect of his most important critic.
“Chris Perry has had an outstanding season,” Carr said. “I don’t care where you’re at Michigan – if you’re a tailback, if you’re a quarterback – for some people, you’re just never good enough. Well, Chris Perry is good enough for me.”
Askew, who also didn’t want to play fullback coming into the season, completed a 180-degree turn in attitude from last year’s bowl game. Last year, after he showed up late for a bowl practice, Askew was benched and then ultimately complained publicly that his punishment was unfair. He wanted to carry the ball more than anything, but not as a fullback.
In this year’s Outback Bowl, Askew refused to throw in the towel after the injury. He even begged Carr to let him not touch the ball – just block.
“I said, ‘B.J., after last year I wouldn’t have given 10 cents for you,'” said Carr, who has often labeled Askew this year as the best fullback in college football. “Now I wouldn’t take a million dollars for you.’ So he’s left a legacy.”
And with another year left at Michigan, Perry has a chance to leave his own legacy.