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Late defensive play helps Michigan survive second-half collapse against Rutgers


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

It was a tale of two halves today for the Michigan Wolverines. The first half was all Michigan, and it looked like the team would dominate at home for the fourth time this season. But that lead quickly disappeared in the second half. Luckily, the defense took care of the business when it mattered the most in the Michigan 20-13 win.

Rutgers had plenty of opportunities to win this one, after cutting the lead to 20-10 midway through the third quarter. But, the last four drives for the visitors ended with a field goal, a missed field goal, a turnover on downs, and the fumble that sealed the win for Michigan.

The Wolverines move to 4-0 for the first time since 2017, the third time the Wolverines have accomplished the feat in the Jim Harbaugh era. The first was in 2016 which was the closest that Harbaugh and Michigan have been to make the Big Ten Championship Game and the College Football Playoff. In 2017, it was a different story, the team lost the next week to Michigan State and went 8-5 on the year.

There’s still a lot of season left to play and most fans who are bearish on this team will say they haven’t beaten anybody yet. And those people may have a case, especially after what happened in the second half of this game against Rutgers. But one ugly half shouldn’t be what defines this team. Michigan still has a lot to prove, but they got a win today against an experience Greg Schiano-led team.

Michigan started with the football and opened up the game with 7-straight runs and 6-first downs on their first drive. Michigan took half of the first quarter off the clock on their 17-play, 74-yard drive that finished with Hassan Haskins punching it in from the 1-yard line.

The Scarlet Knights’ goal on offense was to get to the outside with their speed and stretch the field. Then, they implemented some runs up the middle to counter the outside looks. It was effective early but Michigan’s defense didn’t allow many big plays throughout the game. Rutgers got on the board but were still down 7-3 with about two minutes remaining in the first quarter.

The Wolverines came out throwing the ball and Cade McNamara found a wide-open Erick All for 24 yards. Then, to open up the second quarter, they went to the air again with a quick pass over the middle to Roman Wilson who took it for 38 yards into the red zone.

In the next play, Haskins found the endzone for the second time on a 4-yard rush. After a long, drawn-out first drive, the Wolverines opened up in the air and scored quickly on the second. 14-3, Michigan.

On the ensuing Rutgers’ drive, Noah Vedral, the Rutgers quarterback, was hitting on plenty of short comeback routes on the outside and then running RPO’s up the middle. However, Rutgers was just short of the first on a 4th & 1. Greg Schiano called for a trick play to try and fool the defense, and the Michigan defense didn’t bite:

Rutgers’ defense forced a punt the next drive, but Michigan punter Brad Robbins pinned the Scarlet Knights inside the 3-yard line. The field position battle was won by the Wolverines who forced a three-and-out. A poor punt gave the Wolverines the ball at the 40-yard line.

McNamara unleashed a ball to Cornelius Johnson down the field for a big gain. The Michigan quarterback started 8-of-11 for 156 yards. Back-to-back runs by Blake Corum were held short, so McNamara took an endzone shot to Mike Sainristil. It was a great throw, but better coverage on the fade route for an incompletion. Jake Moody put Michigan up two touchdowns 17-3 hitting a 32-yard field goal.

Rutgers did Rutgers-things on the offensive end, getting called for an illegal formation, mismanaging the clock at the end of the half, and going for it on 4th & 10 instead of punting.

Jim Harbaugh could have been happy with a two-touchdown lead going into the break, but this team is more aggressive than they have been in the past. McNamara found Sainristil underneath and he took it 51 yards and into the red zone. A targeting penalty on a late hit by defensive lineman Julius Turner put Michigan even closer. After Haskins was stuffed at the goal line, McNamara missed a wide-open Luke Schoonmaker in the endzone. So the Wolverines had to settle for a field goal At the half, Michigan had a season-low 77 yards on the ground, but still had a three-possession lead, 20-3. It wound up being the most important decision of the game.

Captain linebacker Josh Ross left the action with a stinger to his shoulder in the first half. That didn’t stop the Michigan defense from holding Rutgers to another three-and-out to open up the second half. But, the Wolverines felt his departure a little more on their second defensive drive. Rutgers moved the ball with ease on a million paper cuts with short comeback passes under the zone and outside runs. Then, Michigan got a roughing passer call on linebacker Nikhai Hill-Green. The very next play, Hill-Green got lost in coverage and Rutgers got into the endzone for the first time cutting the lead to 20-10.

After that first drive of the game, Michigan couldn’t move the ball on the ground. The second consecutive three-and-out for the Wolverines’ offense had momentum trending towards the visitors.

A bad punt put Rutgers in solid field position, and it was more of the same. RPO’s from the Rutgers offense was killing the Michigan defense with either a run outside or a sideways throw to a receiver in the flat. Occasionally, they would throw in a QB run up the gut too.

Michigan had no answer. The third quarter was all Rutgers with 131 yards to just 14 for the Wolverines. Suddenly, this game was back in question with few adjustments being made for Michigan. Rutgers made it into the red zone, but Michigan went into bracket coverage and made a few stops on passes into the endzone. Rutgers made it a touchdown game after kicking a field goal, 20-13.

Desperate for some offense, Michigan went to the air three times without picking up a first down. It was the third three-and-out of the second half for Josh Gattis. McNamara certainly wasn’t helping, completing only one pass all of the second half.

Rutgers responded with more of the same, continuing to make gaping holes and finding wide-open receivers in the flat. But a false start in the red zone, a forced timeout to stop a delay of game penalty, and a missed field goal kept the game at a touchdown lead.

Nothing from the Michigan offense, again, on the next drive. With 8:15 remaining in the fourth quarter, Michigan had still not picked up a first down in the second half. The offensive line was not creating holes for the running backs, and McNamara was missing some open receivers. Vedral and Schiano got another opportunity to tie this one up.

But, Michigan’s defense got the job done once again. A 6-play, 28-yard drive was halted on a 4th & 2 when Rutgers put in a wildcat and was stuffed behind the line of scrimmage.

Say what you want about the Michigan defense and allowing a lot of the same plays to kill them all game long, but they stood tall in some of the biggest moments of the game. Rutgers was 1-4 on 4th downs to this point of the game, and they had to kick field goals three times in the red zone and only converted on two of those attempts in the disgusting second half.

The offense, still sputtering, needed to make something happen. In those situations, you put the ball in the hands of your best player. Michigan did just that giving the ball to Corum. They moved the chains for the first time in the second half because of that decision and formulated their first semblance of a drive of the half. A facemask penalty on a Corum run put the Wolverines in plus territory. Jake Moody had the game on his foot and missed a field goal with 1:49 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Rutgers had been perfect in the second half and done everything they could to beat this Michigan team. But, the Wolverines made the right moves when it mattered most and forced plenty of mistakes from the Scarlet Knights. David Ojabo made a fantastic spin move and clubbed the ball out of Vedral’s hands for Rutgers’ first turnover of the season, sealing the game.

For now, exhale. Michigan found a way to win this game despite not having an offense in the second half. It wasn’t pretty. There are still so many things that need to change for this team to be a serious contender. But the defense did their job late and this team survived because of it.

They head to Madison to face a Wisconsin team that has had a tough go of it early in the year, going 0-2 against Penn State and Notre Dame. The Wolverines haven’t won in Camp Randall since 2001, but they will likely be favored in what could be a statement game in their Big Ten slate.