Michigan football hosts Rutgers on Saturday afternoon at the Big House in a game that most people will admit they do not care much about after last week’s setback at Wisconsin. Jim Harbaugh teams routinely beat up and somewhat bully weaker opposition, so who cares if they come out and destroy Rutgers, right?
Last week was so thoroughly embarrassing for Michigan that they need a laugher in the worst way. They lacked the fire, focus and preparation needed to walk out of Madison with a win last week and instead walked out with their tail between their legs. This week, we need to see a clean and decisive Wolverine victory to at least show that there’s pride inside Schembechler Hall and that they are focused on getting the 2019 season back on track.
You cannot win the Big Ten title this week. You cannot beat Ohio State this week. You cannot win the upcoming big games on the schedule this week. What you can do, however, is set a foundation and something to build off of. Therein lies the biggest storyline of this football game coming off of an eye-opening and quite frankly, disturbing week of Michigan football.
Here are five things to look for on Saturday.
Can Jim Harbaugh and Josh Gattis develop an identity?
The Michigan offense has been a total bust so far after showing glimpses in the opening week of something to build off of. They do not do anything well from top to bottom, whether it be protection, playcalling and getting their playmakers the football. Right now, offensive coordinator Josh Gattis has absolutely no idea what he wants this team to be and Jim Harbaugh continues to defer to him on the decision making on that side of the ball.
Just find something you want to focus on and, well, focus on it. If you think you need to throw it back and run the ball 40-50 times per game, make that your identity and build off of it. If you want to go three or four wide receivers wide and chuck the ball down the field, do it and build off of it. There’s not a power struggle between these two men right now as much as there might be too much trust in a first time playcaller to figure it out. Harbaugh’s offense worked, but needed philosophical changes, not schematic changes. They might be too far down the road to turn back now, but if there’s a chance Harbaugh can slide in and be a calming presence as opposed to washing his hands of the offense, hopefully they are going that route. Stop overthinking this thing and put together a gameplan that utilizes the strengths of the talent you have.
Figure out what the heck it is you want to be. Who cares if its Rutgers? That’s exactly why you need to find what it is you do well on Saturday.
How Don Brown’s defense bounces back
Don Brown’s defense at Wisconsin was done no favors by the offense, but the showing was absolutely atrocious and was another chapter in a disturbing trend that has emerged starting with the Indiana game last season. For as terrific an effort as they turned in against the triple option and Army, last week was the antithesis of that and it saw players out of position, poor run fits, overaggressiveness and arm tackling.
That above all else is unacceptable.
Brown’s guys will probably smother Rutgers, and most of the time that would not mean squat, but that was such a terrible effort last week that you would hope they come out with fire and maybe even find some new pieces to unleash. We heard all offseason about how that defensive line could be 9-10 guys deep, but they have not rotated a whole lot and had a converted fullback and a safety/linebacker playing defensive tackle last week. If Chris Hinton and Mazi Smith are ready to play, we need to see them on Saturday. Carlo Kemp has done fine, but they are getting next to nothing out of anyone else.
Michigan’s offensive line
The offensive line’s regression has by far been the most shocking development of the 2019 season so far. It is a pretty experienced group with All-Big Ten talent across the entirety of the line, but the steps back they have taken are baffling. They have new responsibilities in the new offense, of course, but that they have been a sore spot is something none of us saw coming.
All we can ask for is that they dominate Rutgers. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t. Again, people will say it does not mean anything given the opponent, but show some pride and some fire and that you’re not going to get pushed around.
Shuffling the cards at quarterback
This might be the most fascinating thing to watch on Saturday. Shea Patterson is still banged up and may have re-aggravated his oblique injury during the Wisconsin game. Dylan McCaffrey is on the shelf after a nasty concussion, meaning Joe Milton is next in line to get snaps at quarterback if the situation arises on Saturday.
Patterson, injury or not, has been average-to-bad all season long and if he struggles, Michigan has to show a sense of urgency and get him out of there. Much like how John O’Korn was pulled when he struggled against Rutgers a few seasons ago, Harbaugh and Gattis cannot be afraid to give Milton a chance if Patterson continues to start slow and cannot take care of the football. We should see Milton anyways on Saturday assuming this does wind up being a blowout, but Patterson himself can hold him off from coming in early by playing his first clean football game of the season.
If you continue to get more of the same and do not go to Milton with the game still in question, it might say more about the quarterback room than how Patterson plays does. If he keeps struggling and no reinforcements are on the way, then we should start having another conversation about quarterback development.
Other personnel changes
Last week was so disheartening for Michigan that some players’ efforts are being called into question and this week of practice was going to go a long way in determining who sees the field on Saturday. Most people did not go back and watch the tape from the Wisconsin game, but you’ll know who the players that were slouching off and not giving their all were if they are not on the field much on Saturday compared to normal. It was that shocking a week that the staff seemed willing to hit the reset button and maybe open back up some position battles.
The Wolverines have a stretch of games over the next three weeks that allow them a chance to get rolling into the meat and potatoes of their schedule down the stretch. Now is as good a time as ever to unplug and plug the team back in and see what improves. But it starts Saturday. If they continue to look sloppy and uninspired, that might tell you more than last week’s game even could.
What will you be watching for on Saturday? Sound off in the comments below!