Who: 4-1 Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Time: 7 ET (BTN)
Date: Saturday, Oct. 4
Place: High Point Solutions Stadium--Piscataway, N.J.
What a few days it's been.
The thumping of Appalachian State feels like it happened years ago. Michigan's defense looked fast and aggressive, the running game looked at the very least vaguely competent, and a solid season seemed to be ahead.
The Notre Dame knocked those good feelings away, but it wasn't an earth-shattering loss, per se; Notre Dame is a good football team, and sometimes that just happens.
Then Michigan struggled through the first half against Miami, and the fanbase started collectively doing the David Letterman collar tug maneuver. Utah rolled into the Big House and made Michigan look like a non-Power 5 team.
Then, worst of all, a Minnesota team that completed one pass the previous week came in and took The Jug, with little resistance. More troubling than the concept of another loss is the fact that Michigan clearly looked like the inferior team: slower, less aggressive, less organized. From insane timeouts and disconcerting "I quit" punts to a staggeringly plodding offense and a defense that is already showing signs of cracking under the immense weight of the other side of the ball's lack of production, the score truly belied the nature of the game.
Minnesota had beaten the Wolverines once in my life before this past Saturday. The 2005 loss was tough, but this past weekend was something else entirely: the end of an era, the loss of something.
When Michigan has the ball
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Oh, do I have to write something here? Well, if I must.
First, some numbers. Rutgers comes in ranked 80th in total defense and tied for 72nd in turnovers gained (6). That's the good news for Michigan.
The bad news? The Scarlet Knights are tied for sixth nationally in sacks per game, with 21 thus far; for a point of reference, the Utes are currently tied for second (18, in four games). While Mason Cole has shown flashes of being a guy who could eventually be a very, very good player for Michigan on the left side, given the overall lack of development teamwide, I wouldn't expect the offensive line as a whole to improve as the season goes along.
If the Penn State game was any indication, Michigan will be walking into what should be a fairly hostile environment. A line full of youngsters, uncertainty at quarterback (putting it lightly), no real field stretchers beyond a banged up Devin Funchess, and a Rutgers D that has had success getting to the quarterback--throw all of those ingredients into a cauldron and you get a disaster-waiting-to-happen stew.
Washington State scored 38 on RU, while Penn State -- who has comparable issues on the offensive line -- managed just 13 in a comeback win aided largely by Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova's philanthropy. The Nittany Lions have had trouble running the ball consistently, and Christian Hackenberg has had a rough go of it thus far after a very encouraging freshman season; with that said, I think most would say he's a more talented quarterback than the options Michigan currently has, especially so when you consider the fact that Devin Gardner is probably literally and figuratively broken and Shane Morris...well, you all saw what happened last Saturday.
Simply put, I wouldn't bet on Michigan doing a whole lot better than PSU did on Sept. 13. If there are any silver linings, Rutgers doesn't seem to be too big on the interior. Defensive tackles Darius Hamilton and Kenneth Kirksey weigh in at 260 and 270 pounds, respectively. What they trade out in weight they seem to make up for with mobility; Hamilton has 3.5 sacks and 6.0 tackles for loss to this name. In the TFL department, he's tied for the team lead with junior DE David Milewski.
At defensive end, 6-foot-6, 220-pound freshman Kemoko Turay leads the way with 5.0 sacks. Freshman linebacker Steve Longa leads the Knights in tackles with 37.0.
Rutgers was extremely young on defense in 2013, and so, while many players now have an additional year of experience, it's still a young D. Of course, when faced with an offensive attack like Michigan's, we all know all of the silver linings or points of potential optimism will be ground into a fine powder by the end of the first drive.
The X-factor in all of this? As always: Devin Gardner. After eating some bench last week, he's re-assumed his starting spot. Perhaps he comes out focused, with a concentrated anger at the overall state of things, ready to lead Michigan to a win on the road.
Or, we'll see more of the same, with the offensive line letting rushers through for hit after hit on the senior from Detroit, eventually leading to Big Mistake after Big Mistake.
When the U-M defense is on the field
Things appeared to be set for a strangling performance by the Michigan defense last week, whether Mitch Leidner and Maxx Williams played or not. Well, they did, but it was actually tailback David Cobb who eviscerated the Wolverines for 183 yards on 32 carries.
Could it happen again, leaving Michigan to keep with its New Jersey surroundings and sadly hum Springsteen's "Glory Days" on the flight home? Maybe, but unfortunately for Rutgers, tailback Paul James is out for the season after sustaining an ACL injury in the Navy game. RS sophomore Desmon Peoples is now the guy at tailback, all 5'8'' 175 pounds of him. Behind him is Justin Goodwin, who carried the ball 12 times for 82 yards against Tulane this past weekend; he checks in at 6'0'', 200 pounds, a nice complement to what Peoples brings to the backfield.
At quarterback, Gary Nova has been solid...if you ignore the one massive clunker against Penn State, in which he went 15-for-30 for 192 yards, but, most importantly, tossed a whopping five picks. To his credit, he's thrown only two other picks in RU's four other games. Given Michigan's inability to force turnovers on defense, I would not expect a reprisal of that performance, unless Nova goes to the post office mid-play and addresses the game ball to 2 Countess St., Piscataway, N.J., and pays extra for same-day delivery.
While Nova might not be quite as big as Leidner, 6'2'' 220 pounds is not a small quarterback by any means; with that said, he's not a real running threat. Without taking the time to weed out sacks, he has 19 carries on the season for 11 yards, with a long of 14 yards.
Out wide, junior receiver Leonte Carroo is the guy to watch (25 rec., 475 yards, 5 TD), and he's getting some serious hype. Rutgers has sent a couple pretty nice receivers to the NFL in Kenny Britt and Mohamed Sanu, so for Carroo to be considered in that class is fairly impressive.
Senior Andrew Turzilli, a New Jersey native who transferred back home after starting his college career at Kansas, is a nice target at 6 feet, 3 inches tall, but only has four receptions thus far, with 93 of his 182 yards coming on one play. The 5-foot-11 Janarion Grant is second on the team in receptions with 10 (he also returns punts).
Could Michigan bounce back from a less-than-inspiring performance against what seemed to be an offensively limited Minnesota squad? Your guess is as good as mine. Much of it depends on if Penn State Gary Nova shows up, but a lot of it will also have to do with, of course, whether or not the offense once again leaves the D out to dry.
After the things that have gone on this week in Ann Arbor, it feels strange that there is a football game being played this Saturday. Here we are, sitting under a gloomy cloud of finality, yet there are still seven games left to be played (and probably only seven, as a bowl game seems unlikely at this juncture, barring a serious turnaround).
When I write these previews in the little free time that I have, I do my best to divorce the fan side of me from the rational, realistic side; as a journalist by trade, that is what I'm supposed to do, so I try to bring that here, too.
With that said, I convinced myself that Michigan would edge out Utah, and was catastrophically wrong. I thought the Wolverines would throttle a limited Minnesota team and do just enough on offense to land a win -- wrong there, too.
At this point, the winged helmet doesn't mean much at all. It doesn't even inspire irrational confidence and it isn't worth two touchdowns before the teams take the field. Right now, Michigan is just another team, and not a very good one at that.
With a still green offensive line in front of a probably still banged up and shaken Gardner, I wouldn't imagine Michigan finding the golden ticket this week on that side of the ball. All Michigan can hope for is Nova pitching in another turnover-laden performance; again, though, it's unlikely to expect him to repeat his 5-interception outing against Penn State.
My gut tells me Michigan shows signs of life at the start, with the score being fairly close entering the half. In the second, however, Michigan's flaws will come to the fore, and the Wolverines will fall yet again on the road.
Rutgers 31, Michigan 17.