When No. 2 Penn State thrashed Michigan last week, the Wolverines (2-2 Big Ten, 5-2 overall) were hit with a hard dose of reality. They may not be the College Football Playoff contender that they wanted to be at the beginning of the season, but that shouldn’t stop them from beating one of the worst teams in the Big Ten.
Rutgers (2-2, 3-4) comes off back-to-back wins, but what it might boast in confidence it simply lacks in talent.
Both the Scarlet Knights and the Wolverines have their weaknesses right now, but a quick breakdown reveals that Rutgers’ weaknesses may be too large to overcome.
Here’s the Daily’s breakdown of what you can expect this homecoming weekend:
Michigan run offense vs. Rutgers run defense
The Wolverines’ most reliable offensive position group, the tailbacks, continues to be the source of scoring regardless of who they play.
Against Penn State, junior running back Karan Higdon led the team in rushing attempts for the third straight week, followed by fifth-year senior Ty Isaac and sophomore Chris Evans. Higdon and Isaac produced the team’s only touchdowns.
While that trio rotated starts in the first half of the season, Higdon began to separate himself against Michigan State. In that game, the team wasn’t passing well, but Higdon consistently ran for medium gains, and he broke out in his next appearance against Indiana for 200 yards and three scores.
The fourth addition to the group, redshirt freshman Kareem Walker, always has fans wondering when he’ll receive more consistent playing time. He bulldozed his way to an eight-yard rush against Indiana — his only attempt of the game — but Walker’s role on the team is still supplementary.
Rutgers has given up an average of 159 rushing yards per game, which presents a favorable matchup for the Wolverines.
Rutgers run offense vs. Michigan run defense
The Scarlet Knights, much like the Wolverines, also prefer the run game. Rutgers has run the ball on 60 percent of its plays this season, and running back Gus Edwards leads the team so far with five rushing touchdowns.
Two other running backs — Robert Martin and Raheem Blackshear — also have multiple rushing touchdowns, but each of Rutgers’ backs are in for one of their toughest tests yet against Michigan’s run defense.
The Wolverines allow just 105 rushing yards per game on average. Despite giving up 224 yards on the ground against the Nittany Lions, Michigan should have a much easier time this weekend. After all, Rutgers’ running backs don’t pose the same threat as Penn State’s Saquon Barkley.
Michigan pass offense vs. Rutgers pass defense
Fifth-year senior quarterback John O’Korn threw for 166 yards against the Nittany Lions, a significant increase from his 58-yard outing versus Indiana. Nonetheless, the Wolverines pass offense just hasn’t looked the same since it lost both its starting quarterback, redshirt junior Wilton Speight, and its previously leading receiver, freshman Tarik Black.
The Scarlet Knights’ pass defense, though, has given up 224 yards per game. If there is any game to let O’Korn air it out, it would be this one.
Saturday will actually be O’Korn’s third time playing Rutgers. Before transferring from Houston, O’Korn faced the Scarlet Knights back in 2013. He led the Cougars to a 49-14 win in one of the best games of his career, throwing for 364 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.
Rutgers pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
The Scarlet Knights reopened their quarterback competition after their original starter, Kyle Bolin, had a horrific game in Rutgers’ 56-0 loss against Ohio State, when he threw for under 60 yards. Giovanni Rescigno has held the starting job ever since.
Rescigno, a Michigan native, led his team to two straight wins, but he completed just 50 percent of his passes for a combined total of 176 yards.
He shouldn’t pose a big threat to the Wolverines’ fifth-ranked pass defense. Sophomore cornerback Lavert Hill is drawing comparisons to former Wolverine and All-American Jourdan Lewis, and he leads the secondary with seven pass break ups, two interceptions and one pick-six.
Penn State’s receivers got the better of the Wolverines last week, but expect Hill and the others to come into this weekend hungry for a win.
With only one special teams touchdown, the Wolverines’ punt and kick returners haven’t made as much of an impact as last year. Two freshman handle Michigan’s returner duties: wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones takes the punts and defensive back Ambry Thomas returns kickoffs. Both have shown potential — Peoples-Jones returned one punt for a touchdown against Air Force — but neither have made a significant impact.
Defensively though, the Wolverines haven’t allowed a single special teams touchdown. Rutgers returns each punt an average of 10 yards and each kick an average of just 14, which should not threaten Michigan’s special teams defense unit much.
In the kicking game, the Wolverines have the advantage as well. In close games at the start of the year, redshirt freshman kicker Quinn Nordin proved to be a difference maker.
With light wind and just a two percent chance of rain in the forecast, Nordin will be expected to hit every field goal he takes within 50 yards this weekend.
Both teams have plenty of pride on the line. The Wolverines want to return to the AP Top 25, and Rutgers wants to wash out the foul taste of last year’s 78-0 whooping. Having slipped out of national attention, Michigan hopes to improve after the team’s worst loss since Harbaugh arrived.
Junior receiver Grant Perry said that the Wolverines want to take out all their frustration on Rutgers. If they do that, the Scarlet Knights don’t have much of a shot.
Prediction: Michigan 31, Rutgers 0