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What to Watch For: Week 5 at Rutgers

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Michigan needs to get its run game back on track.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 28 Rutgers at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Michigan is 1-3 for the first time since 1967. The Wolverines lost 49-11 to Wisconsin last week. They were outgained 468-219, picked up just 10 first downs to the Badgers’ 26 and held the ball for less than one-third of the game. An unthinkable rivalry loss to Michigan State and the first defeat to Indiana in 33 years had fans expecting the worst against the 13th-ranked team in the nation. The worst happened.

Before the season started, Saturday’s game at Rutgers was supposed to serve as a welcome breather between Wisconsin and Penn State. Now, it’s a game ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Rutgers — Rutgers! — a 36.5 percent chance to win.

Maybe it seemed like last week’s loss to the Badgers was the lowest of low points. With the Scarlet Knights on the docket — and actually looking like an almost-competent football team under Greg Schiano, no less — that might not be true. The worst might still be yet to come.

Still, Michigan is favored by 10.5 points, and has beaten Rutgers by an average of 44 points in the teams’ last five meetings. The Wolverines still have the talent to cruise to a win over the Scarlet Knights. But this game seems like a crossroads of sorts for Michigan. It can say “no more” and put its foot down against a clearly inferior opponent, righting the ship with a dominant win. Or it can come out even more demoralized than ever, already regarding the season as lost.

If the latter situation comes to fruition, what might happen next is something Wolverine fans really don’t want to think about.

Milton or McNamara?

Last week, I wrote that not every game has to be a referendum on Michigan’s first-year starter. Then he imploded.

Joe Milton followed up two pretty average performances by getting picked off on his first throw against Wisconsin. And also on his second. He didn’t complete a pass to a Wolverine until the second quarter, and was benched with five minutes to play in the third.

Cade McNamara’s entrance by itself, in a 35-3 game, didn’t mean much. Michigan saw a chance to get its redshirt freshman backup some reps. But what McNamara did with them blew the door open. He made four absolutely gorgeous throws — 23 yards to Ronnie Bell, 28 yards to Nick Eubanks, 23 yards to Mike Sainristil for a touchdown and then the 2-point conversion to Giles Jackson — to give the Wolverines their first (only) highlights of the night.

On Monday, Jim Harbaugh said that he’d open up competition, and that both Milton and McNamara would get reps with the starters during practice. It’s an obvious decision by Harbaugh. To be clear: Milton hadn’t done anything to lose his job before Saturday, and the Wolverines didn’t gain a single yard of offense on McNamara’s next two drives. Milton won the starting job at first for a reason. But McNamara, the No. 7 pro-style QB in the class of 2019 and Nevada’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns, was supposedly the top quarterback on Alabama’s board. That ain’t nothing.

The main point in favor of starting McNamara, though, might be the quarterback change itself, as a way to jump-start a flailing offense. It kind of worked against the Badgers. Maybe it will work again.

Or maybe Milton throws for 350 yards and three scores. Crazier things have happened.

Can Michigan get its running game back on track?

The Wolverines cleared the very low bar they set for themselves against Indiana, when they ran for just 13 yards. They gained 47 against Wisconsin.

Michigan’s two starting tackles, Jalen Mayfield and Ryan Hayes, are the Wolverines’ most experienced linemen. Neither of them have played since Michigan State. Michigan’s rushing output in that time isn’t a coincidence.

Even if Mayfield and Hayes return against Rutgers (which isn’t a given), the Wolverines’ problems go far beyond them. The running back rotation between Zach Charbonnet, Hassan Haskins, Chris Evans and Blake Corum has been somewhat of a mess. None has gotten the chance to get into any sort of rhythm. 1.6 yards per carry just isn’t acceptable, no matter how many offensive linemen you’re down. It’s hard to tell where the issues start, either — Michigan’s rushing struggles feed right into its struggles passing, which feed back into ... the run game.

In years past, when the Wolverines have needed to get their offense back on track, they’ve turned to simplicity: not RPOs, jet sweeps, or direct snaps to Haskins on 3rd-and-goal, but inside and outside zone and running right into the teeth of the defense. With how many questions persist along the offensive line, it’s hard to see how that gets going again. But Josh Gattis needs to figure out something, anything that will fulfill that cliche about establishing an important part of the offense. I forget exactly what it is.

How tricky will Rutgers get Saturday?

The Scarlet Knights aren’t good yet. But they’re not the 2-10 team they were last season, the one that got pummeled 52-0 in the Big House in what turned out to be Chris Ash’s final game.

The theme for Rutgers has been punching above its weight class. In its 38-27 win over Michigan State in the season opener, the Scarlet Knights were outgained 369-276, but were able to take advantage of forcing seven Spartan turnovers. Against Ohio State two weeks back, they opened the game with this:

In the third quarter, Rutgers faked a bad snap and a jet sweep on the same play, allowing Isaih Pacheco to gain 69 yards. That set up a touchdown toss to Raiqwon O’Neil. O’Neil is an offensive lineman.

To cap off the trickeration, Rutgers scored on this punt return by Bo Melton — who, you might remember, is the same player that scored on the outrageous, ultimately-called-back lateral touchdown against Indiana.

Noah Vedral, Rutgers’ quarterback, has just a 5-7 TD-INT ratio and a 111.6 rating. The Scarlet Knights are getting outgained by over 100 yards on average, and gain under five yards per play. But their readiness to throw the kitchen sink at opponents means haven’t suffered a true blowout yet — their 22-point loss at Ohio State was a closer margin than say, 62-39 or 56-27.

Rutgers knows it isn’t as talented as any of its opponents, but it knows what it can do to exploit any advantage it might come across. It’s not a team that’s going to roll over anymore, as evidenced by its outscoring the Buckeyes 24-14 in the second half. They’re a team Michigan has to really, really stay focused against if it wants to handle business comfortably — which, for a variety of reasons on either side, hasn’t been the case in the past.