For years, the Rutgers game on Michigan’s schedule has been a write-off, but that’s not the case in 2020. The Wolverines have fallen to 1-3 following their blowout loss to Wisconsin on Saturday. Rutgers sits at the same record after beating Michigan State, but dropping their last three contests.
Now, Michigan heads to Piscataway to face the Scarlett Knights in a game that expects to be much closer than previous years. The Wolverines lead the series 5-1 dating back to 2014 as Harbaugh and Michigan have won five-straight averaging 51.2 points per contest, and shutting out Rutgers twice.
Let’s take a closer look at a game that will be much more intriguing than previous seasons.
Michigan Offense vs Rutgers Defense
The Passing Game
Where to start? Michigan’s first two drives on Saturday began with interceptions from Joe Milton. The first hit Nick Eubanks’ facemask before falling into the hands of a Badger defender for the eleventh drop on the season for Wolverines’ receivers. The second was even more egregious as Milton threw it straight to a Wisconsin linebacker in zone coverage.
This pick capped off four-straight drives ending with an interception dating back to the Indiana loss. Milton finished Saturday with a QBR of 69.6, the third-lowest among starting quarterback’s in the Big Ten this season.
Cade McNamara took over the starting role and immediately made a difference. He marched the Wolverines’ offense down the field on their only touchdown-scoring drive of the game on a 4-play, 75-yard drive capped off by a beautiful throw and an even better catch from Mike Sainristil.
Now, a quarterback battle ensues in Ann Arbor after a tumultuous offseason that ended with one talented quarterback (Dylan McCaffrey) transferring, and more questions than answers at the most important position on the field in year six of the Jim Harbaugh era.
How does the Michigan passing game line up with the rest of the country?
- Joe Milton is second in the Big Ten with 967 passing yards, trailing only Michael Penix Jr. (due to missed games from certain programs).
- Average 260.3 passing yards per game, 6th in the Big Ten and 41th in the country.
- Attempt 34.2 passes per game, T-5th in the Big Ten, 41th in the country
Rutgers defense isn’t the pushover they used to be. They forced seven turnovers against Michigan State in their only win of the year. Since then, they have forced only two in three weeks.
Two veterans lead the secondary with Tre Avery (senior) and Avery Young (junior). Thetwo have forced three turnovers this season: one interception and two forced fumbles.
In their loss to Illinois on Saturday, they allowed just 104 yards through the air, albeit, while allowing 338 yards on the ground on 59 carries (we’ll get into that in a little bit).
One area where Rutgers has really improved is up front. EDGE rusher Mohamed Toure has been one of the best in the country this season. He has three sacks and seven total pressures, and has forced two fumbles on the season in only 49 snaps.
C.J. Onyechi is another name to look out for. An every-down player, Onyechi has 15 pressures and two sacks credited to him in 2020.
Here’s how the Scarlet Knights pass defense lines up:
- Allow 243.8 passing yards per game, 10th in the Big Ten and 79th in the country.
- Faced three of the top-6 passing yard leaders in the Big Ten this season in Justin Fields, Michael Penix Jr., and Rocky Lombardi.
- Rutgers has 7 sacks this season, T-7th in the Big Ten, 82nd in the nation
The Rushing Game
Following the loss to Wisconsin, four Michigan running backs have 10-plus carries on the season. Here’s how it averages out in yards per carry:
- Blake Corum- 2.2 yards on 19 carries
- Chris Evans- 3.1 yards on 11 carries
- Zach Charbonnet- 7.5 yards on 13 carries
- Hassan Haskins- 7.8 yards on 21 carries.
- Overall, the Wolverines have 468 yards on 102 carries this season.
Last season, Michigan relied on one back when he was healthy: Zach Charbonnet. He rattled off two games of over 100 yards and had 136 carries for 642 yards in 2019. This year, he is on pace for 26 carries. He had 33 in just one game (Army) a year ago. A guy who appeared to be so promising has been nearly taken out of the offense.
Part of this is extenuating circumstances as you don’t run the ball from behind very often, and the Wolverines have been playing a lot this year. But the inability to establish the run in the early moments of games and early downs has been devastating for Michigan this season.
Over the last two games, the Wolverines have had a 3rd-and-5 or less only three times, and one of those times came on the goal line. On third-down in the last two contests, they have an average of just over 10 yards to gain. This is why they are converting at an abysmal 27% over their last two weeks and 36.2% for the season.
Here’s how Michigan stacks up in the Big Ten and the country:
- 117 rushing yards per game, 10th in the conference, and 106th out of 126 eligible FBS schools.
- 4.6 yards per carry 7th in the Big Ten, 55th in the country.
- 102 total attempts, less than Nebraska and Ohio State (played only 3 games) and Wisconsin (played twice) for 12th in the Big Ten. Average 25.5 attempts per game, which is 123rd out of 126 FBS schools.
Former Wolverines linebacker Drew Singleton and interior defensive lineman Michael Dwumfour are two significant role players on the Scarlett Knights defense.
Dwumfour starts on the line and has made 7 stops and 8 tackles on the season. Singleton started against Michigan State but has seen his snaps deplete over the past few weeks.
However, the top players to watch for are linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi and safety Christian Izien who are the two leaders on the team in tackles with 36 for the former and 20 for the later.
The Scarlett Knights are really just looking for consistency out of their running game. They held Indiana to only 109 yards on the ground on 40 carries. A week later against Ohio State it was 203 yards on 37 carries. Then, last week against Illinois, the flood gates opened as the Illini picked up 338 yards on 59 carries, with 192 yards coming from quarterback Isaiah Williams.
Here is how Rutgers matches up across college football:
- Allow 175 yards per game, 9th in the Big Ten and 81st in the country.
- Give up 4.0 yards per carry T-6th in the Big Ten and 61st nationally.
Rutgers Offense vs Michigan Defense
The Passing Game
Noah Vedral threw three interceptions against Illinois last week which proved very costly in the 23-20 loss. The senior now has 7 picks and 5 touchdowns at the halfway point of the season. Vedral has a 35.6 QBR, according to ESPN, which is 113th in college football out of 124 players ranked. Milton’s is at 62.9, 60th in the country for anyone wondering.
If Vedral is tossing the football, it is likely going to Bo Melton or Aron Cruickshank who are the Scarlett Knights’ top receivers. Melton has led Rutgers in receiving in every game up to this point and he has had a 20+ yard reception in every game. The numbers were most impressive this week when he showed off his big-play ability accruing 150 yards and two touchdowns on just 5 receptions.
Watch Melton speed past an Illinois corner on a play that looks all too familiar to Michigan fans this season:
Here is how Rutgers stacks up in their passing game:
- 196 passing yards per game, 8th in the Big Ten and 94th in the country.
- Averaged 5.3 yards per attempt, 118th in the country and last in the Big Ten.
- 64.6% completion percentage from quarterbacks, good enough for 35th in the country, and 5th in the Big Ten.
Michigan’s pass defense actually looked slightly better against Wisconsin, allowing just 127 yards through the air. The issue is that the Badgers didn’t really have to throw the ball (which we will delve into momentarily).
Vincent Gray had his best performance of the season allowing only one reception on five targets for just 7 yards. Conversely, the linebackers continued to show their ineptitude in coverage. Josh Ross, Cam McGrone, and Michael Barrett were targeted 8 times and 7 of those were receptions. Even worse, they were productive receptions. 5 of the 7 receptions when Michigan linebackers were in coverage resulted in first downs, and one of the two that weren’t first downs was a touchdown.
For as much as the corners have been scrutinized for allowing big plays this season, the linebackers should be taking just as much heat. In total this year, the three starting linebackers have allowed 32 receptions on 40 targets according to PFF. That equates to an absurd 80% catch rate for opposing tight ends, slot receivers, and running backs.
Michigan is ranked toward the bottom of nearly every pass defense category:
- Allow 247.3 passing yards per game, 12th in the Big Ten and 83rd in the country.
- Opponents average 7.3 passing yards per attempt, 9th in the Big Ten and 64th nationally.
The Rushing Game
The Wolverines will face a familiar foe in Isaih Pacheco. The junior rushed for 142 yards on 16 carries as a freshman back in 2018 including an 80-yard touchdown run. He’s coming off a 133-yard performance against Illinois a week ago, and will face a struggling Michigan run defense this week.
Pacheco currently ranks 5th in the Big Ten in rushing yards with 286 on the year averaging 5.2 yards per carry, 9th among backs in the conference.
The Wolverines will have to contain the workhorse if they hope to win the game this weekend.
Here’s where the Scarlett Knights rank nationally in their run game:
- Average 133.5 yards per game, 9th in the Big Ten, and 92nd in the country.
- Their 3.8 yards per carry is 85th in college football, and 9th in the conference.
Poor pass defense against Indiana and Michigan State masked the issue we saw in the running game in the Minnesota contest. That was illuminated by Wisconsin as the Badgers rolled for 341 yards as four players (including two wide receivers and a fullback!) finished with 50+ rushing yards.
The goal for the Badgers was to attack the outside of the Michigan defense as the Wolverines were without Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye. Constant jet sweeps killed Michigan as they allowed 165 yards on runs to the outside of either backup defensive end according to PFF.
The miscues shown on Saturday against Wisconsin cannot arise again when they face Rutgers this weekend, or it could be another long day for the Wolverines.
This is where Michigan ranks in run defense:
- Allow 178.5 rushing yards per game, 9th in the Big Ten and 76th in the country.
- Allow 4.2 yards per rush, 58th nationally, and 9th in the conference.
Michigan vs. Rutgers P.S.
One final note, this game will showcase the two most penalized teams in the Big Ten. Rutgers leads the Big Ten with 34 penalties, while Michigan is right behind them with 29. The Wolverines, however, are tied for first with Illinois with 295 penalty yards against them this year. Rutgers is third with 271.
How Rutgers wins
This is a testament to the 2020 Michigan Wolverines... their numbers line up similarly with Rutgers at the midway point. While the Scarlet Knights a slightly better than previous seasons, it is truly sad to see how far Michigan has fallen.
Rutgers has so many ways they can win this game, and it starts on the offensive side of the ball. A big day from running back Isaih Pacheco or wideout Bo Melton would go a long way. Michigan somehow needs to craft a game plan to slow both if they hope to win. If either heats up there could be some fatal issues.
Rutgers’ defense could also contribute to a win if they force even a fraction of the 7 turnovers they had against Michigan State in week one. They can do so by getting out to an early lead and forcing the Wolverines to keep the ball in the air where Milton has tossed multiple interceptable balls this year.
How Michigan wins
It’s pretty simple. Establish a run game. We haven’t seen it since the Minnesota game. Give the ball to Haskins and Charbonnet and let them carry the load. Rutgers just allowed almost 350 yards on the ground a week ago. They are susceptible to the run. Trust what Michigan has been built on for the entire history of the program and run the dang ball.
Playing without Jalen Mayfield and Ryan Hayes has hurt the offensive line, but against Rutgers, there can be no excuses. The Wolverines should be able to blast holes in a Rutgers run defense that ranks in the bottom half of the country.
Defensively, they have to do enough. Don Brown does not have the talent nor the scheme to stop the weapons that Rutgers has on the offensive side of the ball. They can bend this weekend, but they cannot break and allow a huge day for Melton or Pacheco.
Containing the outside run will play a huge role in the game. Force the ball into Vedral’s hands and make him beat you. And, in case you didn’t notice by the P.S. whoever has fewer penalties, in a game that is sure to be smitten by them, will likely have a strong chance of winning, too.