Coming off dramatic, last-second finishes in its last two games, Michigan hopes that this weekend's home date with Rutgers will be more of a snoozer. The Scarlet Knights are 3-5 and have lost each of their past two games by at least 38 points. Given that Michigan is favored to win by more than three touchdowns, it would not be too much of a surprise if it happened a third straight time.
Nonetheless, we still want our readers to know everything that they need to know about Michigan's upcoming opponent, and who better to ask than someone that covers the team? We met with Aaron Breitman, who is the manager at On the Banks -- SB Nation's Rutgers site -- and asked him about Kyle Flood's hot seat and this weekend's matchup. It's safe to say that Aaron doesn't have much confidence in the Scarlet Knights' future.
You can find my thoughts on Michigan-Rutgers in the Q&A we did at On the Banks.
The off-the-field news has simmered down in recent weeks, but, for awhile, Rutgers was in turmoil from the six now-former players that were charged with various crimes to Kyle Flood's three-game suspension for pressuring a professor to change a player's grade to Leonte Carroo's charge of simple assault in a domestic violence incident, which has been dropped. Add in that Rutgers is only 3-5 in Flood's fourth season, and there have been some questions regarding if he is the right guy for the job. How do Rutgers fans feel about Flood's handling of the program? Is he on the hot seat?
Flood is absolutely on the hot seat, and the fanbase has grown more and more unhappy with him as the season has gone on. After last season, expectations were that the team would have similar success and possibly improve on the 8-5 record. Between the arrests and dismissals that decimated the secondary and Carroo's suspension followed by Flood's suspension, the season unraveled quickly.
When the details about his improper contact with a professor emerged, it was disturbing. A good portion of the fanbase was defending Flood through the entire investigation, which took about a month. There was concern the media was making it a bigger scandal that it should have been, until the facts were disclosed. It wasn't pretty, and Flood lost a lot of support when the investigative report became public. Personally, I thought he should have been fired and at the time was certain he would be by the end of the season.
He has lost the benefit of the doubt, so his margin for error is much smaller than before. If it were up to the fanbase, he would be fired if they finish with a losing season. Now that 5-7 could potentially be enough to make a bowl game, I am not sure what the administration will decide. The fear is no matter what record the team finishes with, Flood will be back for next season. With Rutgers not scheduled to receive their full Big Ten share until 2021, money is a concern. The athletic department is the most subsidized in the country. The President of Rutgers is set to retire in 18 months and has no interest in sports. Our AD Julie Hermann has been MIA in the public eye for months. In summary, things are a mess, and it's difficult to predict what will happen.
After a resounding comeback against Indiana, Rutgers was outscored in its last two games against Ohio State and Wisconsin, 97-17. The Buckeyes and Badgers are very good teams, but what happened in those games? Why wasn't Rutgers competitive?
The coaching staff had the team completely unprepared. A major frustration with the fanbase is the lack of a gameplan in certain games. The OSU game, the defense blitzed and schemed for the first series and then backed off into zone coverage and were ravaged. The offensive play calling at Wisconsin was dreadful. It seemed like OC Ben McDaniels had zero confidence in quarterback Chris Laviano. The lack of fight the team displayed was also concerning. We are realistic and don't expect to beat the powerhouses of the Big Ten right now. However, our lack of competitiveness the past two seasons is very frustrating. Rutgers has lost six games by 25 points or more in the past two seasons. It's fair to question the entire coaching staff for so many repeated blowouts.
If there's one area where Rutgers may be able to exploit Michigan's defense, it's with the long ball through the air. Led by one of the nation's best corners in Jourdan Lewis, the Wolverines' pass defense has been very good, but, in the last two games, it's allowed big plays. Some have happened because receivers won jump balls or had tipped balls fall into their hands, while others have been on well-executed double moves. How will Rutgers and quarterback Chris Laviano (64.5 cmp%, 7.7 YPA, 12:8 TD:INT ratio) try to attack Michigan down the field? And will Leonte Carroo -- the Big Ten's most explosive receiver -- be back after missing last week with an ankle injury?
That's just it, Laviano has displayed very little ability to throw the ball downfield. He averaged 2.3 yards per attempt against Wisconsin. That is not a typo. With Carroo, Laviano has had his moments throwing downfield. Without him, he has been unable to do anything, with the exception of the 4th quarter comeback against Indiana.
As for Carroo, he is listed as questionable on the injury report. However, I think Flood is saving him in hopes he will be at full strength or close to it for the last three games of the season. Rutgers plays Nebraska at home, visits Army and then finishes at home against Maryland. I'm sure Flood knows if he fails to make a bowl game, it could spell the end of his tenure. All three are winnable, although to be honest I am not very confident they will run the table after Michigan.
The odds are that Rutgers won't be able to run the ball well against Michigan. The Scarlet Knights' run offense is 90th in S&P+, while Michigan's run defense is second. Nonetheless, Rutgers seems to divide its carries among three running backs: Josh Hicks (99 car., 511 yards, 4 TD), Robert Martin (86 car., 501 yards, 4 TD) and Paul James (64 car., 357 yards, TD). How would you describe each player's running style? And which running back is more likely to break a few runs against the Wolverines?
The offense has stuck with a rotation all season between senior Paul James and sophomores Josh Hicks and Robert Martin. James was the lead back the previous two years but suffered season ending injuries each time. It took him a few games to look like he was fully recovered, breaking a 72 yard run against Michigan State and a 40 yard touchdown run against Indiana. He is a big bruising back who is the best receiving back of the three.
Hicks is another big back who broke out at the end of last season, rushing for 202 yards in the bowl victory over North Carolina. He started this season as the most effective of the three backs until he started fumbling the ball, including a critical one in the loss to Washington State. Hicks was averaging over 6 yards a carry until he became a non-factor mid-season. He led the team in rushing for the first time in a month last week with 72 yards on 15 carries.
Robert Martin offers a contrast in style, a smaller back who slashes and can cut back better than the other two. He has been the only back who has broken the rotation, as Flood rode the hot hand with Martin in the 4th quarter against Indiana.
The frustration has been by equally rotating the three backs, it has been difficult for any of them to get enough carries to get in much of a rhythm. They all have potential to break a big gain, but due to the ineffectiveness of Laviano, most teams are stacking eight in the box, daring him to beat them with the pass. That has yet to happen.
Rutgers' defense has been terrible against both the run (108th in S&P+) and the pass (122nd in S&P+). Can you pinpoint why this unit has struggled so much this season?
One major factor is three-fourths of the starting secondary was arrested and dismissed from the team the week of the first game of the season. The two deep for the secondary is completely made up of redshirt freshman or true freshman, with the exception of junior safety Anthony Cioffi. Their other veteran Davon Jacobs is out with an injury.
The defensive line has been a major disappointment. Our senior captain and best player, Darius Hamilton, is out for the year with an injury. Kemoko Turay, who gained notoriety after blocking Michigan's field goal attempt in the 4th quarter last season, has failed to meet expectations. He has followed his breakout freshman season of 7.5 sacks and three blocked kicks with just two sacks. His best moment came against Indiana when he recovered a botched snap on a punt and returned it for a touchdown.
The linebacking core is the strength of the defense, led by senior captain Quentin Gause, junior Steve Longa (6th in the country in tackles) and South Carolina graduate transfer Kaiwan Lewis. They have been good at stopping runs from becoming long gains, and their effort has been tremendous. However, they have had trouble in pass coverage all season.
Overall, the lack of pressure from the defensive line and ineffective blitzing has been a major disappointment. Rutgers actually had some great defenses a few years ago predicated on creative schemes and blitz packages. We long for those days, as the past three seasons the defense has been historically bad.
Though Rutgers has not fared well in defending against the run or the pass, opponents have preferred to attack the Knights through the air. Opponent run rates against Rutgers both in standard and passing situations are 119th in the country. However, Michigan has had trouble moving the ball through the air, particularly on deep throws, and may have to play its backup quarterback, Wilton Speight, because Jake Rudock exited the Minnesota game with a torso injury. If you were Jim Harbaugh and Michigan, how would game plan for this Rutgers defense? How would you attack it?
Rutgers has struggled mightily at defending the intermediate passing game all season. Receivers have consistently found gaps and space within the defense. Combine that with a lack of pass rush or defensive pressure up front, and you have a bad combination. Passing teams such as Washington State and Michigan State have had tremendous success. There is talent with our young secondary, but they are still learning and big mistakes happen at times.
The defense fared pretty well against the run the first half of the season, with the exception of Penn State. The last two games, Ohio State and Wisconsin have seen their star running backs, Ezekiel Elliott and Corey Clement, run rampant all over the field. J.T. Barrett is the one player who has torched Rutgers with both the run and pass. We traditionally don't do well with quarterbacks that can run.
The Big Ten has a #Don'tKickToWillLikely mantra, but that should apply to Rutgers' Janarion Grant as well. Grant has three return touchdowns this season. Though Michigan's cover units have been great, Grant could seize an opening and take one to the house. Why is he such a fantastic returner? Will he have an impact on this game?
Grant started off the season with three returns for touchdowns in the first two games. Then teams stopped kicking to him, and he got banged up and was basically ineffective for a few games until he returned a kick last week for 42 yards against Wisconsin. He has a good combination of strength and speed, having the ability to run through traffic on returns. His lack of touches on offense has been frustrating for him and the fanbase. You would think Rutgers would work Grant more into the gameplan, but it hasn't happened. Grant running a kickoff back for a long return might be Rutgers best chance to score on Saturday.
Fill in the blank: in order to beat Michigan, Rutgers must ____________________?
(A) Pray for a miracle; or (B) hope the 2006 Rutgers team time travels to the Big House and plays instead.
This is expected to be a blowout. Michigan is favored to win by 24.5 points. Will this be the case? Or will Rutgers surprise us and upset Michigan? What's your prediction?
I am one of the most optimistic Rutgers fans around, but after the past two weeks along with everything else this season, I have zero confidence in this team. Laviano has led the Rutgers offense to a grand total of six points in games this season against Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin. The defense has given up 125 points in those games. Until Rutgers proves they can even be semi-competitive against a good team, I think Michigan will deliver similar results. 42-0 Michigan.
Thank you to Aaron for answering our questions! Make sure to follow him on Twitter.