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Rutgers at No. 19 Michigan Week 4 Preview: Much has changed in a year

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The Wolverines close out a month at home with the start of conference play.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Led by a high-scoring offense and stingy defense, the 2021 season has opened with two big wins over smaller schools and as well as a solid(ish) Power 5 victory. All anyone can ask for heading into the Big Ten season is a 3-0 record and a clear improvement over last year’s .333 winning percentage, and that is exactly the case...for Rutgers.

Of course, those same statements apply to the surging Wolverines, but the similarities just about end there. Last year’s triple overtime “thriller” in Piscataway showed just how far Michigan had fallen, but the first three weeks of this season have quickly erased much of 2020’s challenges.

It will be tough to speak too definitively about this team until it faces some legitimate competition, and even though Rutgers comes to Ann Arbor undefeated, this might not be the best barometer. Instead, the Wolverines are heavy favorites once again after dominating on the ground for the third straight week.

The Scarlet Knights have been solid so far, sitting at No. 59 per S&P+, but this will by far be their biggest challenge. No one has been able to stop the Michigan running game this season, and the Rutgers defense will really be put to the test on Saturday at the Big House.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights (3-0, 0-0) vs. No. 19 Michigan Wolverines (3-0, 0-0)

Date: Saturday, September 25
Time: 3:30 pm ET
Location: Ann Arbor, MI

When three different running backs are all averaging over 5.0 yards per carry, it tends to say more about the offensive line than any one single rusher. The Michigan front five has been absolutely dominant to this point, opening up huge holes and shoving back opposing linemen.

At the same time, credit is due to Blake Corum, who looks capable of taking any handoff to the house. While Hassan Haskins is an important part of the offense as well, it seems like Corum may start earning the larger share of the touches. It took some time, but between him and the growth of A.J. Henning, this might finally be what ‘speed in space’ actually looks like. Adding in some quarterback reads is probably the last step, but that has not been needed thus far.

Meanwhile, the Scarlet Knights feature Isaiah Pacheco for seemingly the thousandth year in a row. The speedster had a memorable run against Michigan back in 2018, but is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry this season. Assuming the game goes to script, Rutgers will need to rely on quarterback Noah Vedral to keep pace. The senior is averaging over 200 yards a game with a 71.6 percent completion rate this year and has yet to throw an interception.

Matchup Highlights

Michigan can probably just run all over Rutgers like its previous three opponents, but this is another chance to work Cade McNamara into the game plan. McNamara had a couple good throws last week including the deep shot to Cornelius Johnson and a strong completion to Erik All down the seam, and with the Scarlet Knights missing a couple corners, there will definitely be opportunities in the passing game as McNamara saw last year. This is still his offense, but 37 attempts over three games is not really enough work for a player who only threw 71 passes last season.

Vedral may not be the most intimidating passer, but he has had a good year so far. He is not going to take a ton of deep shots, though Rutgers may have to quickly turn to the air to keep pace with the Wolverines, so maybe he will end up taking some risks. Last season his best game came against Michigan, putting up 381 yards and three touchdowns for a 160.2 passer rating. Vedral is unlikely to tear apart the secondary, but this should be a chance for the defense to step up and prove that average passing games will not be able to find much success.