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What we learned against Rutgers: Brandon Peters gives Michigan necessary spark

For the first time in weeks, Michigan looked like Michigan again.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan wasn’t just in need of a win to help get back on track Saturday — what they needed was a solid all-around performance to help build confidence down the stretch. That’s exactly what they did.

It didn’t happen right off the bat. The Wolverines struggled a bit to begin the game, but about halfway through the second quarter in a 7-7 tie, Jim Harbaugh made the call to replace starting quarterback John O’Korn with redshirt freshman Brandon Peters — the substitution some fans had been waiting weeks to see. That’s when everything changed.

Let’s take a look at what we learned against Rutgers.

Lesson 1: Brandon Peters gives Michigan necessary spark

With 7:01 left in the second quarter, Michigan started with the ball at its own 23 yard-line. To that point in the game, John O’Korn had completed three passes for 13 yards and an interception. The Michigan offense had scored seven points on four drives, averaging just 4.8 yards per play. Then Brandon Peters trotted onto the field.

The crowd rose to its feet and cheered. The Wolverines seemed to play with a new energy. Karan Higdon took consecutive handoffs for gains of eight yards and 12 yards to begin the drive, and then Peters rolled out and hit Tyrone Wheatley for an easy 15-yard first down completion. Suddenly, Michigan looked like a completely different team.

The Wolverines finished the 77-yard drive with a 10-yard Higdon touchdown run. On the next Michigan possession, Peters marched the offense back down the field and threw his first touchdown pass — a 20-yard wheel route to running back Chris Evans — just before the end of the half.

To start the third quarter, the Michigan defense stifled the Scarlet Knights for minus-four yards and a punt, and then Michigan took the ball down the field once more and capped a 54-yard drive with Kareem Walker’s first career touchdown run.

That’s how the Brandon Peters era began at Michigan: three drives, three touchdowns. But it wasn’t just his passing performance that changed the game. Sure, he was 10-of-14 for 124 yards and a score, but he looked calm and confident running the offense. The running game was dominant. The defense played with more energy. The crowd came to life.

The Wolverines began playing like most fans had expected they would play all season.

Lesson 2: The offensive line is coming along

Michigan’s offensive line has struggled throughout the season. Running backs were getting stuffed in the backfield and quarterbacks were getting sacked regularly. Through the first seven games, the Wolverines had allowed 7.3 tackles for loss per game and 3.3 sacks per game. On Saturday, they allowed only five tackles for loss and zero sacks.

The unit seemed to start coming along against Indiana, creating holes for the running backs and protecting O’Korn. That was the first game all season they had not allowed a sack, while Karan Higdon also busted out for a career day with 200 yards and three scores. The following week on the road against Penn State was certainly an expected setback, but they redeemed themselves with another solid performance against the Scarlet Knights.

As an offense, Michigan set season highs in both rushing yards (334) and total yards (471) on Saturday. This team will only go as far as the offense can take them, and that starts at quarterback and in the trenches. After Game 8, it seems both of those areas are moving in the right direction.

Lesson 3: The defense is back to its reliable ways

While it wasn’t the shutout that it was last season, the Michigan defense got back to business against Rutgers and regained some confidence that it likely lost following three tough games. The Scarlet Knights broke one big play and orchestrated one solid drive — but that was it. On those two possessions, Rutgers tallied 150 yards. The rest of the game was Wolverine dominance, allowing just 45 yards on 33 plays.

Granted, yes, it was against Rutgers, but with a young defense that had just experienced its worst performance of the year, this was exactly the type of resolve they needed to show.

Rutgers v Michigan Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Lesson 4: The preseason expectations are back on track

Yes, Brandon Peters played well in his first extended game action as a Wolverine. And yes, the entire team seemed to play much better once he stepped onto the field. Does that mean Michigan is back to Top 10 form? Not nearly.

Still being just a redshirt freshman and only having about 40 minutes of game action under his belt, Peters is likely to have a few road bumps over the next couple weeks. Luckily, with a strong defense and favorable matchups in the next two games, Michigan should be able to weather any mistakes that occur and continue improving heading into a tough road test at Wisconsin and a home game against Ohio State.

After the win against Rutgers, which followed a turbulent three weeks of two losses and an overtime victory, the expectations that were set before the season seem to be back on track — develop a young team and reach at least eight or nine wins.

On to the battle for the Little Brown Jug.