The No. 17 Michigan football team plays Rutgers on Saturday in a game not expected to be close. The Scarlet Knights have a first-year quarterback, the 111th-best defense in the country and a coaching staff riddled with violations and controversy. Oh, and they’ve been outscored, 97-17, in their past two games.
The Wolverines, on the other hand, seem to have regained momentum after a wild win at Minnesota, are knocking on the door of the Big Ten’s elite and have a star in the making in redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers.
Here’s how things break down for Saturday’s game (spoiler alert: It doesn’t look good for Rutgers):
Michigan pass offense vs. Rutgers pass defense
The biggest factor in this matchup will be who lines up under center for the Wolverines. Fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock, who has started all eight games for Michigan this season, left the game in the third quarter last week with an injury that Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh later referred to as soreness in his ribs and back.
Harbaugh said the injury was minor, and offensive coordinator Tim Drevno said Rudock has been practicing all week and should “absolutely” see playing time Saturday. But until Rudock steps on the field, it’s unclear how effective Michigan’s passing game can be.
Though the Wolverines’ effectiveness through the air is uncertain, it’s painfully clear how ineffective Rutgers will be at stopping it. The Scarlet Knights are 119th in the nation in passing yards allowed, 114th in passer efficiency allowed and 118th in yards per completion allowed.
Michigan won’t likely rely on the passing game to win, but if it needs to, Rutgers won’t stop it.
Michigan rush offense vs. Rutgers rush defense
Same song, different verse in the run game. The Wolverines, who may be missing junior running backs De’Veon Smith and Ty Isaac, have some uncertainty at who will pick up the carries, yards and touchdowns, but Rutgers is the team to be uncertain against.
The Scarlet Knights are holding opponents to 155.9 rushing yards per game, good for 55th in the country, but have allowed 4.7 yards per carry (92nd) and 20 touchdowns (111th). That leaves plenty of opportunities for Michigan to lean on its ground game, which — even without a fully healthy Smith — can build and maintain a lead throughout the game.
Michigan rush defense vs. Rutgers rush offense
Michigan’s run defense will have the edge over any rushing attack and does so in this matchup. The Wolverines are second in the nation in yards allowed per game (74.6) and per attempt (2.4). In addition, Michigan has yet to allow a 30-yard run, one of just five teams in the nation to do so.
It’s a historically formidable front for the Wolverines, while the Scarlet Knights’ rushing attack is not-so-historically average.
Sophomores Josh Hicks and Robert Martin have near-identical numbers eight games into the season, rushing for four touchdowns each on 511 and 501 yards, respectively. The two have taken turns carrying the load, and seem capable of picking up the other’s slack.
Regardless, look for both to struggle more than usual at the hands of Michigan’s defensive line.
Rutgers pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
If there’s any way Rutgers can stay in contention for an upset, it’s through the air. The Wolverines, at one point among the top five in the nation in every major pass defense category, have given up 645 yards and countless big plays to Michigan State’s Connor Cook and Minnesota’s Mitch Leidner. What once looked like an unbreakable unit has turned into a loophole for aspiring offenses.
In addition, Rutgers has done most of its damage through the passing game. Behind receiver Leonte Carroo, who is eighth in the country with nine touchdowns and 12th with 105.4 yards in just five games, the Scarlet Knights have shown a knack for making explosive plays against even top defenses.
Though Rutgers quarterback Chris Laviano has done well (64.5 completion percentage, 1,520 yards, 12 touchdowns) in his first season as the starter, he isn’t Cook or Leidner. While Cook and Leidner are experienced, conservative starters, Laviano falls into the category of the inexperienced wild cards Michigan has faced.
In their dominant five-game win streak in September and October, the Wolverines faced 10 quarterbacks — none of whom possessed substantial experience as a starter — and allowed 60 of 143 passes to be completed (41.9 percent) and only one touchdown compared to seven interceptions.
Laviano is another first-year starter, which should be apparent Saturday.
Michigan is first in the nation in special teams efficiency, has a punter who can boom the ball 80 yards, a kicker who has yet to miss from inside 40 yards and two returners (redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers and redshirt junior Jehu Chesson) who could take a return back for a touchdown in any given moment.
Sorry, Rutgers — there isn’t much margin for error Saturday. Michigan takes special teams more seriously than any school in the country, and it will show Saturday.
The goals for these teams are very different. Michigan, at 6-2 and 3-1 in the Big Ten, is still on the hunt for a Big Ten title berth. Rutgers is simply looking to avoid getting blown out for the third game in a row.
When Rutgers upset the Wolverines last season, a lot had to go their way. Michigan was without its starting running back at the time (junior Derrick Green), it was a home night game for the Scarlet Knights and Michigan was in the midst of one the most tumultuous seasons in program history. Even then, Rutgers could only sneak out with a 26-24 win.
This year, with a thinner Rutgers roster, a tougher and more stable Michigan team and the game being played in the Big House, the two programs are in entirely different leagues despite sharing a division. It will get ugly on Saturday, but that will be a pretty sight to the eyes of Michigan fans.
Prediction: Michigan 45, Rutgers 7