The Michigan football team (2-2 Big Ten, 5-2 overall) once had its eyes on the College Football Playoff.
Then it played Penn State.
Now, with their goals realigned and their focus on what’s ahead, the Wolverines meet the polar opposite of the Nittany Lions. Rutgers (2-2, 3-4) comes to Ann Arbor for the fourth ever meeting between the two programs, in a meeting of two wailing offenses.
Thursday, the Michigan Daily spoke with Ryan Dunleavy, a Rutgers beat reporter for NJ.com, to talk about the Scarlet Knights’ season and what Michigan fans can expect to see this weekend.
The Michigan Daily: Now that Rutgers has back-to-back wins, what are your thoughts on the team, and what are you going to be watching for from Rutgers this weekend?
Ryan Dunleavy: I think they’re getting much better. They were a team last year that so much of what they had to do was clean up off-field messes, and get the program image back in the right direction, get the recruiting back in the right direction. It was such a long-term rebuild that I think the onfield product almost had to take a back seat during year one (under coach Chris Ash).
In the last two weeks, you’re finally starting to see a little bit of progress on the field from the team getting some wins. It also shows you how bad the West division of the Big Ten is. It’s Wisconsin and a bunch of below average teams, which I’ve said all along. Rutgers, Maryland, Indiana all those teams would probably be bowl-teams in the West division, and Rutgers beating Purdue and Illinois only strengthens my case.
TMD: Rutgers switched quarterbacks two weeks ago and now plays Giovanni Rescigno. How has he played?
RD: The best way to describe how he’s played is ‘tough’ and ‘smart.’ If you look at the stats, he’s certainly not going to win you over. He’s completed 50 percent of his passes for about 170 yards and one touchdown but no interceptions. That’s in two games. He’s certainly not the reason they’re winning games, but he isn't the reason they’re losing games, which might be the reason they’re winning games.
He’s played smart. His teammates rally behind him. He’s a ‘gamer.’ He raises his game in practice, he improvises plays on the run. He bounces back up from tackles. He’ll take a big hit. He’s one of those guys teammates love to get behind. He’s got those intangibles that can really lift a team’s spirit. He’s helped Rutgers in that way.
He’s helped Rutgers not so much as a passer, not so much as a runner, but just as a good leader.
TMD: Rutgers runs the ball on almost two-thirds of its plays. If Michigan lines up with six or seven guys crashing the line, will that change Rutgers’ game plan at all?
RD: (Rutgers) will try to run it. It will change if they’re not having success, but their preference would be to find a way to have success even if Michigan is crashing the box. Rutgers is going to want to run the ball. They’re going to want to shorten the game. They’re going to want to have time of possession. That’s what they want to do.
They have no interest in getting into a high scoring battle with a team that has superior talent.
TMD: Has there been any talk of revenge at Rutgers in regards to last year’s game?
RD: They’ve done a pretty good job of putting that out of their heads publicly. I think it’s on the back of everybody’s mind. That game was impossible to forget. Rutgers-Michigan is interesting because they’ve played three times and two of them are very memorable. One, Rutgers beat Michigan, and it was like, ‘Oh my god, how did that happen?’ It was Rutgers first Big Ten win in 2014. Last year, 78-nothing. You just don’t see that. You see 56-nothing all the time, but you don’t see 78 nothing. I think for Rutgers it’s in the back of their mind, but no one has admitted that it’s an extra motivator.
TMD: Hypothetically, if Rutgers pulled off an upset. Who would be the X-factor for the Scarlet Knights?
RD: It’d take more than one X-factor for Rutgers to beat Michigan. I know the teams have the same conference record but there is still a pretty big gap. I would start with Raheem Blackshear. He’s a true freshman running back who has scored touchdowns in each of the last two games. He’s just lightning in a bottle quick. He de-committed from Michigan State and ended up at Rutgers. A real difference maker, gets eight or 10 touches a game and makes the most of them.
Janarion Grant is a guy who had a big game on special teams the last time Rutgers was at the Big House. He was supposed to be their best receiver this season, but with his inconsistency, he hasn’t really been much of a factor at all. If you told me Rutgers was going to win back-to-back games without Janarion Grant having much of an impact, I would not have believed that. He’s either due for a big game or destined for a bad year.
On defense, if Michigan is going to run the ball as much as I expect, Trevor Morris is Rutgers’ leading tackler. A linebacker who is just always around the ball. It seems like he has 10 tackles every Saturday. What he doesn’t have is forced fumbles and interceptions. If he can turn all those tackles into tackles for loss or turnovers, that would be something that could swing the game.
TMD: Finally, your prediction?
RD: I pick Michigan, 42-7. I think both teams are going to run the ball, run the ball and run the ball all day long. I expect Michigan’s offensive line will be able to do a little bit better job than Rutgers’. Michigan’s defense will be able to do a better job stopping Rutgers. Michigan has too much depth.
I know Michigan is off to what they would consider a tough start, but bottom line is they just have too much talent right now.