What to watch for: Michigan at Rutgers

Thursday, November 19, 2020 - 9:45pm

Michigan will face off with Rutgers this weekend, the first time the two have met with a 1-3 Michigan record since the Brady Hoke era.

Michigan will face off with Rutgers this weekend, the first time the two have met with a 1-3 Michigan record since the Brady Hoke era. Buy this photo
Miles Macklin/Daily

The Michigan football team has never had an issue with Rutgers under Jim Harbaugh.

In five games, the Wolverines have outscored the Scarlet Knights a combined 256-37. None of the games have been decided by fewer than three touchdowns. Rutgers has been the Big Ten’s doormat since joining the conference in 2014, but this year, Michigan enters the matchup with an identical 1-3 record.

The last time the Wolverines started 1-3 in conference play was 2014, and one of those losses came in Piscataway. Michigan fired coach Brady Hoke at the end of the season, paving the way for Harbaugh’s hiring a few short weeks later.

Now, Harbaugh finds himself skating on the same thin ice as Hoke in 2014. The rest of this season could determine whether or not he endures a similar fate. And his task of righting the ship begins on Saturday in Piscataway.

Here’s what to watch for when the Wolverines take the field:

Will Michigan’s defensive line fight back or fold?

Against Wisconsin last week, the Wolverines’ defensive line had a night to forget. Michigan’s run defense was gashed to the tune of 341 yards, and four different Badgers racked up more than 60 yards on the ground.

Defensive line coach Shaun Nua was displeased, to say the least.

“If you’re not embarrassed by those numbers, then you shouldn’t be part of this frickin’ game,” Nua said on the Inside Michigan Football radio show on Monday. “I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. It’s just unacceptable. So the challenge is — I’m talking about as a whole group — what the heck can we do to make sure that thing does not happen (again)?”

It’s no secret that the Wolverines’ defensive line has struggled to pressure the quarterback this season. Michigan didn’t record a single sack against Michigan State or Indiana, and it took nearly three quarters of football to register one against Wisconsin. Playing without starting defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson (season-ending leg surgery) and Kwity Paye (lower body injury) against the Badgers exposed the Wolverines’ lack of depth.

However, the Scarlet Knights average just 329.5 yards of total offense per game, which is second-worst in the Big Ten behind only the Spartans. Only one Rutgers running back, Isaih Pacheco, has gained more than 150 rushing yards this season so far. In last season’s meeting, Michigan held Pacheco to just 23 yards on a team-high 10 carries. 

If there’s a game that the Wolverines’ defensive line might circle as an opportunity to get back on track, it’s this Saturday’s. If not, it might just be another sleepless week for Nua.

After mid-game benching, how will Joe Milton respond?

The defensive line wasn’t Michigan’s only unit that needed introspection after its blowout loss to Wisconsin. Against a Badgers defense that hadn’t seen game action in three weeks, junior quarterback Joe Milton threw interceptions on his first two passes.

Milton’s turnovers put the Wolverines in a quick two-score hole, putting the game out of reach nearly immediately. Things didn’t get much better for Milton after that, and halfway into the third quarter, Harbaugh had seen enough. After posting a statline of 9-for-19 passing for 98 yards, two interceptions and no touchdowns, Milton was benched in favor of sophomore Cade McNamara. Milton exited with a passer efficiency rating of 69.6 — the third-worst of any Michigan quarterback in the Harbaugh era.

“(Milton) knows what he has to do and we know what he has to do,” senior tight end Nick Eubanks said Tuesday. “We’re falling right behind him. We tell him every day after practice or during the game that we’ve got his back. Just make those plays and we’ll be there for him. That’s with any quarterback, as well. But we know Joe’s a special dude. We’re just falling behind him, whatever he gives us.”

On his first drive, McNamara did exactly what Milton couldn’t. He completed all three of his passes for 74 yards, ending the drive with a back-shoulder dime to sophomore receiver Mike Sainristil in the end zone.

Harbaugh left the door open for a quarterback competition earlier this week, meaning another underwhelming performance from Milton could thrust McNamara back onto the field. If that doesn’t light a fire under Milton, it’s hard to tell what will.

Can a second go-to receiver emerge behind Ronnie Bell?

After losing receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black in the offseason, it was always expected that Michigan’s receiving corps would be relatively inexperienced this fall. That problem only worsened when Nico Collins opted out of his senior season to train for the 2021 NFL Draft.

Even without three of their top pass-catchers from last season, the Wolverines knew they’d be able to rely on junior Ronnie Bell. After leading Michigan in receptions and receiving yards last season, Bell has tallied team-highs in both categories through four games so far this fall. But behind him, nobody has solidified themselves as a clear go-to No. 2 option.

True freshman Roman Wilson has shown promise, most notably in a 71-yard performance against Michigan State. Sophomore Cornelius Johnson ranks second on the team in receiving yards with 134, though he’s been held without a catch in two games this season. He made a highlight reel snag in the end zone against the Hoosiers, but inconsistency has limited his role. Sophomore Giles Jackson’s 11 receptions is good for second-most on the team, but he’s averaging just 10.6 yards per catch. That’s only good for eighth-best on the team.

Somebody must step up behind Bell if Milton is going to get back on track against a porous Rutgers secondary. The Scarlet Knights have surrendered 975 yards through the air already this season, making it a good matchup for one of the Wolverines’ young weapons to break out.


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