Peoples-Jones’ punt return sparks No. 7 Michigan past Air Force
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones gave Michigan fans a taste of what he can do last week when he gained 44 yards on a reverse.
With the Wolverines’ offense constantly stalling in the red zone on Saturday, People-Jones made an explosive play on special teams to provide a much-needed jolt.
The dynamic wide receiver scored on a 79-yard punt return for his first career touchdown, lifting No. 7 Michigan to a 29-13 victory over Air Force at Michigan Stadium.
“I’m just blessed to be coming out and be a contributor,” People-Jones said. “They just tell me every opportunity you get, just make the most of it.”
People-Jones, 6-foot-2, also made the first two receptions of his career for 52 yards.
“I think you saw Donovan kind of settle in a little today and realize what he’s truly capable of with catching passes, making people miss and catching a punt return and taking it 70-something yards,” Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight said. “Those are strides that everyone needs to take.”
Sophomore Quinn Nordin tied the school record with five field goals, bailing out an offense that didn’t score a touchdown until Karan Higdon’s 36-yard run with 1:02 remaining.
“No question, we won on special teams today,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “That will be a good confidence builder and good momentum going forward.”
Speight completed 14 of 23 passes for 169 yards as Michigan (3-0) finished off its non-conference schedule. Ty Isaac led the ground attack with 89 yards on 16 carries.
The Wolverines’ offense has scored just five touchdowns in three games.
“Obviously, it’s big-time that the defense has been scoring,” Speight said. “Peoples took one to the house today, which was a huge, huge play in the game. The offense knows we’ve got to do what they’re doing, and once we do that, it will be a really scary, complete team.”
Quarterback Arion Worthman rushed for 60 yards on 26 carries and also completed a 64-yard touchdown pass to Ronald Cleveland for Air Force (1-1). All six of Worthman’s other pass attempts were incomplete. Falcons running back Tim McVey added 62 yards on 11 carries.
Falcons coach Troy Calhoun took little solace in the performance of his red-zone defense.
“We gave us some yards,” he said. “We’re going to dissect and debrief and learn from this. Keep developing, that’s what we really, really have to do.”
People-Jones gathered in Charlie Scott’s 53-yard punt, weaved around defenders and eluded Scott’s tackle attempt at the 10 to give Michigan a 16-6 lead 1:09 into the second half.
“He’s not small and he does have some decent feet,” Calhoun said. “Then he has good strength in order to break some tackles. They did a good job with three key blocks and once he’s got a little bit of room, he’s going to go.”
The Falcons quickly matched that score with a big play of their own. Cleveland got past safety Tyree Kinnel, caught Worthman’s toss at midfield and raced to the end zone on the 64-yard play.
Nordin’s 29-yard field goal later in the third made it 19-13. He drilled his fifth of the game, a 36-yarder, in the opening minute of the fourth for a nine-point lead.
Air Force’s Luke Strebel missed a 29-yard field goal try with 7:19 remaining, preserving Michigan’s two-score advantage.
Higdon’s touchdown completed the scoring.
The teams traded field goals throughout the first half and the Wolverines emerged with a 9-6 lead.
Nordin’s 35-yard field goal gave Michigan an early advantage. Robert Bullard’s recovery of a Chris Evans fumble at the Wolverines 44 set up the Falcons’ first score, a 37-yard field goal by Strebel.
Speight completed two pass plays of at least 30 yards early in the second quarter but Michigan had to settle for Nordin’s 26-yard field goal. A 34-yard scamper by Worthman led to Air Force’s next score, Strebel’s career-best 50-yard field goal.
Nordin’s 49-yarder in the closing seconds put Michigan back on top
“He’s in a great place,” Harbaugh said of Nordin. “It’s great to see him kicking confidently and knocking them through with room to spare.”
NOTES: The Wolverines are now 10-0 against current members of the Mountain West Conference. They lost to Utah in 2008 when the Utes were still in the MWC. ... Michigan has defeated Air Force in all three meetings. ... The Falcons’ six-game winning streak against nonconference opponents was snapped. ... Air Force’s last victory over a Top 10 opponent came against No. 9 Notre Dame in 1995. ... Michigan is 8-0 in nonconference games and 15-2 at home under coach Jim Harbaugh. ... The Falcons are 4-6 following an off-week under coach Troy Calhoun.