ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Kordell Stewart was in the Big House, but this time as a sideline commentator for Colorado. So was Tom Brady, as an honorary captain for Michigan. But the biggest comeback came on the field, as No. 4 Michigan rallied from a first-quarter deficit to earn a 45-28 win over Colorado Saturday at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan rallied to take a 24-21 lead at halftime, then kept the pace with the Buffaloes early in the third quarter when it appeared Saturday’s nonconference game was going to turn into a shootout. Michigan, however, scored three unanswered touchdowns in the second half to remain undefeated.
Michigan (3-0) opens its Big Ten Conference schedule next Saturday against Penn State (2-1), with a kickoff time to be announced.
Here are five things we learned today about Michigan:
1. Don’t count out a top-5 team
Down by 14 with less than four minutes left in the first quarter, many eyed an upset by the Buffs. But Michigan answered by putting a hand in the face of Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau. They looked for opportunities to run the ball and for long throws. They remembered that plenty of time was left in the game.
It’s easy to get comfortable with a big lead, as Michigan had against Hawaii and UCF. But it’s also easy to resign yourself to being down by double digits. Michigan didn’t do that against Colorado.
2. Special teams count
Special teams helped Michigan fuel its turnaround. Michael Jocz’s blocked punt set up Grant Perry’s first-quarter touchdown, a 6-yard return that cut Colorado’s lead to 14-7, and Colorado missed a field goal at the start of the second. The Wolverines appeared to block a second punt about six minutes into the second, as Alex Kinney’s wobbly kick bounced off the hand of Jocz as he defended against another player. The bloop put Michigan at Colorado’s 38, but was officially credited as a negative-7-yard punt by the Buffs. That set up Chesson’s touchdown three plays later, that cut Colorado’s lead to 21-14.
But the biggest game-changer came late in the first half, as Jabrill Peppers’ 13-yard return set up Michigan’s go-ahead touchdown one play later, Wilton Speight’s 45-yard pass to Amara Darboh.
3. Missed tackles hurt Michigan early
The Wolverines needed to utilize a physical game to minimize Colorado’s passing attack, but ball carriers eluded Michigan in the first quarter as the Buffs built a 21-7 lead.
Case in point was when Jeremy Clark wasn’t able to hang on to Colorado receiver Bryce Bobo, who scampered for a 50-yard catch from Liufau late in the first quarter. Colorado’s drive bridged the first and second quarters but was unproductive, as Diego Gonzalez’s 36-yard field goal attempt went wide early in the second.
4. Resiliency is important
Michigan spotted Colorado a 14-0 lead less than four minutes into the first quarter, and appeared almost overwhelmed by Liufau’s distance and accuracy. In response, the Wolverines began wearing down Liufau and Colorado’s offensive line.
Liufau lost consistency as first half went on; he went 9-11 passing for 150 yards in the first quarter, but was 4-10 for 17 yards in the second quarter. Michigan, meanwhile, answered a pedestrian first quarter (66 yards, and only five rushing) with a 141-yard, four-touchdown second quarter. And instead of lifting quarterback Wilton Speight (16-for-30 passing, 229 yards, TD) in favor of the more experienced John O’Korn, Michigan’s coaching staff and its team kept the faith in the redshirt sophomore.
5. Michigan’s run game is making progress, but in baby steps
Michigan again relied heavily on the pass to rally to a 24-21 halftime lead, as Speight threw for 108 yards in the second quarter. By halftime, Jehu Chesson was Michigan’s third leading rusher with two carries for 23 yards, behind De’Veon Smith (7-32) and Jabrill Peppers (2-24). Michigan finished with 168 yards rushing, led by Smith (87 yards on 11 carries, TD).
How does this team respond in the face of adversity, and in the face of a team they don’t know much about? Pretty good, actually. Down 21-7, Michigan didn’t panic. It didn’t flounder. It didn’t switch out players or make rash decisions. Instead, the Wolverines stayed the course.
Will the Wolverines carry this momentum into Big Ten play? Michigan opens its conference schedule next Saturday against Penn State, when the games mean more and Michigan begins its pursuit of a Big Ten championship. The Nittany Lions defeated Temple 34-27 and against Colorado, Michigan got a necessary wake-up call.
Jabrill Peppers rose to the occasion, in all three facets of Michigan’s game. Peppers finished with 204 yards of offense, nine tackles (six solo) on defense and 200 yards on kickoff returns and punt returns, including a 54-yard punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
What it means
Michigan appeared to cruise through its first two games with double-digit wins and All-American numbers from Speight. Saturday, the Buffaloes gave the Wolverines their first taste of competition and reminded Michigan that this season won’t be a cakewalk. Michigan took note, and, as Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh would say, acquitted itself accordingly.