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What we learned from Michigan’s 52-17 victory over Rutgers

The Wolverines have taken the next step.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

It felt like the universe was against the Michigan Wolverines on Saturday night.

Personnel wise, Michigan was handicapped before the game began and the problem was only exacerbated throughout the night.

Starting left tackle Ryan Hayes, right tackle Trente Jones, wide receiver Roman Wilson, edge Jaylen Harrell, cornerback Gemon Green, and safety Makari Paige, were all ruled out due to team-spread sickness or injury.

During the game, reserve-turned-starting left tackle Jeffery Persi was injured, starting left guard Trevor Keegan left early with an injury, tight end Luke Schoonmaker was banged up and missed some time, starting quarterback J.J. McCarthy took a plethora of hits, and Heisman-contending running back Blake Corum was throwing up on the sidelines due to “too much adrenaline.”

Michigan’s vaunted special teams unit had a punt blocked and last year’s Lou Groza Award-winning kicker Jake Moody missed two field goal attempts. Offensively, the Wolverines were predictable and were struggling with the physicality of the Rutgers defense.

On defense, Michigan continued to give up 50/50 balls and suddenly, the Wolverines were trailing at the half for the first time all season, 17-14. The first half against Rutgers was unequivocally Michigan’s worst half of the season for factors within and outside its control, and had fans across the country accepting the, “It’s just not our night,” mentality.

This game felt like the combination of two of Michigan’s worst performances from last year: Nebraska in terms of limited personnel on the road, and Rutgers in terms of a lethargic effort against a physical team.

But in the second half, everything changed. Michigan was physically imposing on both sides of the ball, forced three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), and opened up a commanding lead before coasting down the home stretch to secure a 52-17 victory.

How did the switch flip? When interviewed post-game, edge Mike Morris denied any motivational speeches or halftime theatrics to inspire the players, but alluded to an understanding shared among the team the first half was not up to their standards and they would fix it.

This type of confidence and belief is not fabricated; it has to be earned through the fires of failure and forged through a culture. Last year’s team helped construct the foundational identity of this team, but Team 143 has shown they have taken it to a new level.

I have no doubt the team last year would have overcome a performance like Saturday’s and won the game, but they could not have done it as emphatically as this.

Good teams win on their good days, but great teams win on their bad days. And bad days for the Wolverines now mean winning on the road by 35 points with a pair of 100-yard rushers.

Michigan even showed improvement in this game in terms of red zone execution by scoring five touchdowns on six trips, and turnovers, by finishing the evening +3 in takeaways.

McCarthy showed a toughness in the first half that endears a quarterback to his team and despite an average performance, still finished with a stat line comparable to a Heisman frontrunner from Columbus.

McCarthy vs. Rutgers: 13/27, 151 yards, 2 touchdowns

CJ Stroud vs. Rutgers: 13/22, 154 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception

On Saturday we learned that, it’s still ‘Michigan vs. Everybody,’ and that includes the universe.

The Wolverines are 9-0 and have still not played their best football, and that should be alarming to some teams when you consider what Michigan did to Penn State. Michigan is a better team than a year ago and will have chance to prove that at the end of November.