It was only Rutgers. But Michigan’s 35-14 win over the Scarlet Knights felt like so much more.
A step forward for the offense, which finally debuted its pilot episode of the Brandon Peters Show. A return to the norm for the defense, which was very good only one week removed from a rough game against Penn State.
So yes, it was just Rutgers. But, thanks to their new quarterback, the Wolverines seem like a different team now. And without the weight of expectations going forward, it’ll be interesting to see just how far this young group can progress over the final month of the regular season. Saturday, they certainly moved in the right direction.
Here are five other things we learned:
1. Peters will remain the starting quarterback
It would’ve been understandable for Jim Harbaugh to slow things down following his redshirt freshman quarterback’s performance Saturday. Of course, Peters performed admirably in the first game action of his career, but the hype had already reached unsustainable levels before he even completed his first pass against the Scarlet Knights.
But Harbaugh — who has seemingly been more reserved this season than in years past — was clearly enthusiastic about his quarterback’s performance, noting that Peters has exceeded expectations, and that for now, he has a grip on the starting job.
“Right now I feel really good about the way that he played,” Harbaugh said, “and feel good about him taking the next step and being the starting quarterback and having a great week of now knowing he’s the starting QB in practice.”
2. Higdon continues to establish himself
It was a big day for Michigan’s junior running back. Karan Higdon enjoyed a career day against Indiana just two weeks ago, and his game Saturday ranks among his best as well: 18 carries for 158 yards and two touchdowns. As the Wolverines have improved at blocking power and counter runs, Higdon has benefited. Despite his size, he’s a true north-south runner who has a low center of gravity and good speed — qualities that were all on display when Higdon sliced through the Rutgers defense for a 49-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
With Saturday’s performance, Higdon now has over 1,000 career rushing yards — and now that he has a firm grip on the starting running back position (in addition to another year of eligibility), it’s safe to say he’ll be adding a lot more to that total.
3. Defense’s kryptonite?
There isn’t much to harp about with this defense. Penn State did bomb them last week, but the Nittany Lions have done that to everyone this year, and that seemed like an aberration for the Wolverines. Michigan was expected to bounce back against a middling Rutgers offense, and that was exactly what happened.
Rutgers quarterback Giovanni Rescigno had a 13.9 quarterback rating, the Scarlet Knights averaged just three yards per carry and the Wolverines gave up under 200 yards of offense yet again.
The only error that Michigan made, in fact, was a 65-yard touchdown run by Janarion Grant. The lightning quick receiver did it the same way Saquon Barkley scored his first touchdown last week: by taking a direct snap and outrunning everyone. But that just about does it when it comes to any qualms viewers could reasonably have after the Wolverines’ defensive performance.
4. Offensive line continues to march forward
Michigan’s pass-protection miscues have been well documented this year. The offensive line struggled to keep Wilton Speight upright, it struggled to keep John O’Korn clean in the pocket and it’s reasonable to assume that Peters will take his fair share of hits going forward.
But the Wolverines have made major strides in the run game, and that was evident against the Scarlet Knights. Peters simply didn’t have to do much — his offensive line was busy bashing the Rutgers defense into the turf. Michigan ran 51 times for 334 yards for a healthy 6.5 average yards per carry. Two running backs went for over 100 yards, three different rushers scored and the Wolverines had over 13 more minutes of possession.
Running the ball will be more difficult when teams like No. 3 Ohio State stack the box and dare Peters to beat them with his arm. But if the run game continues developing at this pace, that may not matter. A well-executed power or counter, after all, is nearly impossible to stop, and this is the most similar Michigan has looked to Harbaugh’s well-oiled rushing attacks at Stanford. Back then, everyone knew what was coming — and opponents still struggled to defend it.
5. BOLD PREDICTION: Michigan’s next quarterback controversy will take place in December
Wilton Speight has gone on record saying he hopes to be back for Michigan’s penultimate regular season game, a Nov. 18 date at No. 4 Wisconsin. But with no shot at the playoffs, there’s no need for Speight to rush back from his traumatic injury. The Wolverines might love to have a quarterback with his experience for the road game against the Badgers and a home date against the Buckeyes. Three broken vertebrae just seems like an awfully difficult injury to come back from in such a short period of time.
Having an extra month to rest up before Michigan’s bowl game ensures that Speight will be fully healthy. And once he is, the Wolverines will need to deal with yet another quarterback controversy — almost regardless of Peters’ production the rest of the season. Speight’s eventual return and his stake in claiming the starting spot will be yet another interesting storyline in a season full of them.