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No. 5 Michigan at Rutgers Preview: Stepping away from the fray

A trip to Piscataway comes at the right time in Michigan’s season.

Rutgers v Michigan Photo by Gaelen Morse/Getty Images

The narratives surrounding the Michigan Wolverines this week are mostly off the football field. Whether it be fallout from the tunnel or reactions to the first College Football Playoff rankings, few headlines are focusing on the No. 5 team’s actual performances and upcoming matchup this Saturday night.

For a few reasons, it is fortunate that the Rutgers Scarlet Knights happen to be next on the schedule. In terms of off-field distractions, this is not the type of team that would be able to capitalize even if Michigan was focusing on a few things at once, and saving the toughest opposition for last (Illinois and Ohio State) should help with the strength of schedule arguments when the rankings really matter.

While Michigan would be wise to not completely ignore Rutgers after last season’s narrow win, this will not be a competitive game. The Scarlet Knights are hopeless on offense and extremely beatable via the Wolverines’ bland, but effective style of play on both sides of the ball. I would be surprised to see the home team hit double digits on Saturday.

No. 5 Michigan Wolverines (8-0, 5-0) vs. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (4-4, 1-4)

Date & Time: Saturday, Nov. 5, 7:30 p.m.
Location: SHI Stadium, Piscataway, NJ
TV/Streaming: BTN

Come back after Thanksgiving

Rutgers actually has a decent defense (29th per SP+), but this unit is far from impenetrable. While the season-long numbers are sharp, the Knights drop off in conference play, sitting just 92nd against the run against conference opposition. While the pass defense is top-20 in the conference portion of the season, look no further than Ohio State’s 7.4 yards per carry to understand how opponents have leaned.

With this in mind, Michigan fans are going to have to wait a bit to see the long-awaited passing game be opened up (if ever). Neither Rutgers nor Nebraska require anything too fancy on offense, and the strategy against Illinois’ staunch defense will certainly start with the run game as well, so expect to see more of the same for the next few weeks as Jim Harbaugh is happy leaning on the run as much as possible.

That should make this weekend another opportunity for Blake Corum to bolster his resume, with Rutgers allowing 4.4 yards per carry in Big Ten play. Of course, the hope is to give him some rest as well, so there should be plenty of action for Donovan Edwards if the game plays out as expected. It may be simple, but no reason to not lean on the dominant offensive line and yard-gaining backfield and grind down another opponent.

For J.J. McCarthy, there should be a few shots, but at this point in the season the game plan is what it is. He is going to get 20-25 attempts and complete around 70 percent of them, but the play calling is unlikely to really wow anyone. He still does have some room to prove he can consistently make all the throws, but that is probably the ceiling for what anyone can learn from this matchup.

In search of a shutout

The Michigan defense continues to dominate, most recently holding Michigan State to 1.6 yards per carry. The Spartans did have a bit more success through the air, but that feels very difficult for a team like Rutgers — 123th in passing offense against conference opposition this season at just 5.5 yards per attempt — to replicate with any hope of success.

The Knights have tried three different options at quarterback and none have been very successful. Incumbent Noah Vedral lost out to Evan Simon, but both have failed to impress and will now give way to Gavin Wimsatt, a four-star recruit who saw most of the action against Minnesota. When a team’s best option is completing 40 percent of his passes and has three times as many interceptions as touchdowns...good luck.

While none of the quarterbacks are worth fearing, there is also no skill position that stands out either. Sean Ryan leads the team with 269 receiving yards and a 16.8 average, but it is hard to not like the Michigan secondary against him. And with Isiah Pacheco finally gone and Samuel Brown out for the year, there is not a big-play threat anywhere in the Knights backfield, so figuring out where the yards will come from is a huge challenge.

SP+ has the Rutgers offense right around the levels of UConn, Colorado State, and Hawaii. As a refresher, these teams combined for a total of 17 points against the Wolverines, all of which came after Michigan was up by at least 40 points. Hard to imagine this one deviating too much from the script we have already seen three times this year.

Enjoy the ride

Look, no one is ever excited to play Rutgers; that is why this game is one of the few this season on BTN. Like the Hawaii contest earlier this year, having this game at night does not make it any more exciting or important, and most fans are going to be pretty checked out by the time this one is over.

As I have stated before, though, we only get around 13 of these a season and should be thankful for any opportunity to enjoy this team. Given how last year’s matchup got a little dicey, Michigan will probably aim to be a little sharper without having to risk too much or dive too deep into the playbook.

If that is not enticing enough then just remember that the annual game against Rutgers could soon be ending with the inevitable schedule adjustments coming when USC and UCLA come aboard. This one is unlikely to hit 78-0, but this may be the last chance at a huge night game blowout in Piscataway for a while.