Junior returner awakens from doldrums for Rutgers


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Photo by Luo Zhengchen |

Junior wide receiver/returner Janarion Grant ran a kickoff back 98 yards for a touchdown in the 49-16 loss at Michigan Nov. 7. Grant also returned a punt 67 yards en route to posting 263 all-purpose yards in the loss.


ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Janarion Grant is back.

And he chose the biggest of stages to prove it, showcasing his returning talents in front of 109,789 fans clad mostly in Michigan's trademark maize and blue.

One week after setting the school record for kick return yards (now 2,235 yards) — just eight games into his junior season — Grant returned a 98-yard kickoff for a touchdown and set up a field goal with a 67-yard punt return on his way to 263 all-purpose yards on the afternoon.

"It feels great,” Grant said two days after setting the record Oct. 31. “It feels good to hold that title. I've been working hard for it each and every day, each and every game, trying to be the best and do what I can do. (The record) feels really good, I'm really excited about that."

After some began to wonder if Grant had entered the witness protection program — referencing how he's been dormant for the Rutgers football team during the previous five games — the wide receiver and kick returner reemerged in Ann Arbor, proving just how potent he can be with the ball in his hands.

"Janarion is a weapon on special teams every week,” said head coach Kyle Flood at his postgame press conference. “Teams do different things to try and keep the ball away from him, but every time he’s got the ball in his hands, he’s a threat to score.”

The blame cannot all fall squarely on Grant's shoulders. The return team has shown an inability to get it blocked recently and his penchant for threatening the end zone from distance has forced teams to be cognizant of the electrifying runs coaching staffs see on film. 

Following an 18-yard touchdown run by New Jersey native Jabrill Peppers, the Knights trailed, 21-3. 

Just when the game began to creep closer to becoming out of reach, Grant fielded the ensuing kickoff on a hop at his own two, punched the gas at the 20 and raced 98 yards for a touchdown, leaving the likes of the Wolverines kick returner — speedster Jourdan Lewis — struggling to tread through his wake.

Junior wide receiver Andre Patton said Grant’s return reenergized the visiting sideline.

“That definitely gave the team a little juice,” Patton said. “That definitely made our spirits lift. By that time we were probably only two-scores down, so I thought we were capable of coming back from that.”

Grant was far from finished.

Michigan managed two more touchdown drives in the second quarter to stretch the lead to 35-13. Rutgers appeared to have an answer before safety Jarrod Wilson made a phenomenal, leaping interception of sophomore quarterback Chris Laviano, tracking the throw over his shoulder, before fully-extending and catching the ball with his fingertips.

But the Wolverines drive stalled soon after, paving the way for Grant to trot back out with the punt return team.

This time the junior broke off a 67-yard return before being pulled down from behind by Peppers, nine yards shy of his second score, with nine seconds left in the half. The Knights were only able to muster a field goal, a mere chink in the chassis of Michigan, which outscored Rutgers, 14-3, in the second half, en route to a 49-16 blowout.

The native of the Sunshine State even sprinkled in three receptions for 26 yards on offense.

At 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, Grant is often underestimated by opponents. Unshaken by his shiftiness, teams tend to think they can simply body the Knights' all-time leader in kick return yards. 

But Grant feels otherwise.

"I'm probably a slippery guy,” he said. “I'm strong, you know, I'm (not) gon' give up just because that one man is in front of me. I'm gonna fight. I think they (underestimate me) and that's when they get it all wrong."

***

Jabrill Peppers proved his worth.

In the week leading up to the matchup at Michigan Stadium, Rutgers paid respect to the sophomore defensive back’s athletic prowess, with a few Knights having played against the East Orange native in high school.

As the bright lights flickered on at “The Big House,” Peppers proved that he is both sizzle and steak, making six tackles on defense, including one for loss, along with two carries on offense, highlighted by an 18-yard touchdown run on a lateral pass.

“I will say this: The touchdown that Jabrill scored on … I thought that play was trapped," said Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh. “The move he made and the way he weaves himself through there ... I knew he was good, but he’s — he’s really good. He’s really good. I thought that there was not another rung to go (up) on the ladder, but there is. He found another rung.”

Two years ago, Peppers snubbed the Scarlet and White in favor of the Maize and Blue for his collegiate career. On Saturday he poured salt into the wound, roasting Rutgers from three different positions and flashing the promise college football fans across the country are becoming more aware of each week.

“You certainly have to be aware of where he is on the field,” Flood said. “Jabrill’s a very talented player, so when he gets the ball in his hands — much like No. 1 (Grant) — he’s gonna be a threat to score.”

It wasn’t just his touchdown run on a long handoff from Rudock in the second quarter, or his play on offense in general that showed up on film, although it did open the game up to a point where the Knights would never recover. Peppers also made two touchdown-saving tackles.

On Rutgers’ second offensive possession — already trailing 7-0 — the Knights faced a 2nd-and-7 from their own 31-yard line. Sophomore running back Robert Martin broke through the teeth of the Wolverines defense appearing destined for pay dirt.

But not so fast.

Peppers tracked Martin through the middle of the field before dragging him down at the 15, making one of Rutgers' fastest players appear to possess average speed. The 6-foot-1, 215-pounder orchestrated an encore later in the first half, hauling Grant down on his 67-punt return, which also appeared fated for the end zone.

“I think I’m pretty talented,” Peppers said. “I still think I have a lot of work to do and a ways to go, but I definitely — I’m talented.”

***

Jim Harbaugh is one of a kind.

And if there was any question about that fact, the Wolverines' head coach dispelled those notions Saturday night at “The Big House,” both during and after the 49-16 blowout of Rutgers.

With his team leading, 35-13, toward the end of the first half, Harbaugh reached into his bag of tricks, dialing up a faux substitution where tight end Jake Butt simulated heading toward the sideline for a player switch, before stopping short and remaining on the field, split wide.

Michigan was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct under the little known “intent-to-deceive” clause. Butt, who was left wide-open due to the confusion, caught the pass and raced upfield for a big gain before having the played called back by the penalty. Both on the field and is his post-game press conference, Harbaugh was incensed with the call by the officials.

“I’m pretty offended by that,” Harbaugh told reporters. “You know, that that was called an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty … It’s bewildering.”

With 11:40 left in the third quarter, running back De'Veon Smith ran in for a four-yard touchdown to put Michigan up, 41-16. With the game in hand and the Knights reeling, Harbaugh took the opportunity to up the ante, calling for a two-point play which the Wolverines converted to expand their 25-point lead to 27.

“The chart says to do that,” Harbaugh said when asked about the decision to go for two. “That’s what the chart says and so we went with that, playing the percentages, taking it from, 'What did it take it from — 25 to 27?' That was — that’s what it says to do.”

It was a bit of a head-scratcher when considering how lifeless Rutgers looked to that point in the game and some have speculated, present company included, that this turning of the knife was a measure of payback for the Knights' 26-24 win over Michigan last October.

“If they get three touchdowns and two-point conversions on all three of those and kick a field goal, then it’s a four-score game.,” Harbaugh said. “You play those scenarios out when you’re managing a game. That’s all it was. Maybe from where you sit it seems lopsided, but from where I was standing with kickoff returns and the punt returns and … I play out those bad scenarios in my head.”

***

It was a play indicative of of things to come for the Rutgers. 

As the clock wound toward zero in the first quarter at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, the Knights had Wolverines quarterback Jake Rudock dead to rights. 

On a 3rd-and-Goal from the four-yard line, the Iowa transfer couldn't find an open receiver. Rutgers defensive end Quanzell Lambert wheeled around the edge and collapsed on Rudock, in perfect position to make a sack and force Michigan into a field goal attempt. 

But Lambert missed, junior Julian Pinnix-Odrick took a bad angle and Steve Longa's last ditch dive came up empty. 

Rudock escaped the pocket and turned the corner before extending every inch of his 6-foot-3, 208-pound frame toward the goal line, touching the football to the front-left pylon to give the Wolverines a 14-3 lead.

“I don’t know how he got in on that second touchdown,” Harbuagh said of Rudock’s pylon plunge. “It looked like that he’d be sacked in the backfield. And even when he got on the perimeter, on the edge, I had a great look at it and I didn’t think there was any way (he could score).”

For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @KevinPXavier and @TargumSports on Twitter.


Kevin Xavier

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