Michigan players rush towards the Rutgers team near the end zone at Rutgers.
Rutgers may never be a program with the prowess of Michigan. But through careful preparation, Greg Schiano consistently puts the Scarlet Knights in position to compete with the Wolverines. Alum Emma Mati/Daily. Buy this photo.

When Greg Schiano took the helm of Rutgers in 2020, the team was in dire straits. The program amassed just 13 wins over the previous five seasons. That included an infamous, 78-0 bludgeoning at the hands of Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan football team in 2016.

But since, Schiano has taken the reins of one of college football’s bottom feeders and injected new energy into the program.

Under Schiano’s second stint as Rutgers coach nearly 20 years after his first, the games have remained mostly close affairs. 2020’s COVID-shortened season saw the Scarlet Knights nearly beat Michigan in overtime. In 2021, they lost by a touchdown. In 2022, they led for the first half before imploding amid Michigan’s dominant second half. But don’t let one half of football define recent history, though. Schiano’s teams are tough.

The Wolverines know this isn’t the same old Rutgers.

“Rutgers always plays us pretty hard,” senior running back Blake Corum said Monday. “They have ever since I’ve been here.”

Schiano and Harbaugh’s coaching matchup includes the past three upset bids, but it doesn’t stop there. When they both coached in the NFL back in 2013, Schiano’s struggling Buccaneers nearly knocked off Harbaugh’s 49ers who were coming off their Super Bowl XLVII loss. A big reason Tampa Bay lost was a fourth-quarter, kickoff trick play that wound up fumbled into its own end zone — a stunt pulled in search of an upset victory.

It’s one thing that Schiano plays Harbaugh close, but what’s extraordinary is the extra production he extracts from his team. Coming off an era in which the Scarlet Knights were the laughing stock of the Big Ten, Schiano has coached them into nearly beating a Wolverines squad with better funding, recruits and facilities than Rutgers could know what to do with.

The roots lie in Schiano’s dedication to details, which has caused a culture change in Piscataway. He’s a perfectionist, obsessed with football’s schematic details in a way that prepares his players. While that doesn’t mean his team is winning a national championship anytime soon, he’s made significant improvements in the way the Scarlet Knights perform on the field. They are not a conference contender by any stretch of the imagination, but they have made ample progress in four seasons.

“I mentioned it with Coach Harbaugh — how we exemplify a lot of things that he believes in and things that he does. We want to emulate that,” Michigan receivers coach Ron Bellamy said. “And those guys do the same thing with Coach Schiano. Those guys are tough, disciplined, well-coached. Those guys play hard. This is a good Rutgers football team.”

Those might appear the typical pregame platitudes that coaches dole out ahead of a game. Michigan coaches heaped similar praise about their non-conference foes, too. But their words ring especially true about Schiano.

Take it from Bill Sheridan, a former Michigan graduate assistant coach back in the ‘80s, who was also Schiano’s two-year defensive coordinator for Buccaneers.

“There was pressure there, not only to perform as a player and a coach, but you wanted to because (Schiano) was such a professional in every aspect of his job,” Sheridan told The Michigan Daily. “There was not one thing left to chance. …  In those two years there, I went into every single game convinced we were more prepared than anybody could possibly be going into an NFL football game.”

No one needs to explain why that detailed preparation matters, but it’s especially important at the college level. Players still possess raw attributes and unchecked immaturities that make them susceptible to mistakes. If a program like Rutgers wants to slay a juggernaut, they have to enter prepared to expose Michigan’s flaws. So far, the Wolverines have maintained their edge just enough to stave off a loss and continue an eight-year win streak against the Scarlet Knights.

But Rutgers has inched ever closer to breaking that streak since Schiano took their helm. With four years to install his program so far, Schiano now has experienced veterans on the roster who know his system — especially on the defensive side of the ball. For Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter, the fingerprints of Schiano’s background are obvious this season.

“A longtime super successful defensive coordinator — how his team would be built is how they play right now,” Minter said. “… And then they play complementary football. So maybe they don’t score 50, but they’re controlling the clock. They’re getting touchdowns. They’re getting the lead or keeping the lead. (They are) able to play pretty conservative and not put themselves in harm’s way. And that formula over the first three games has been really successful.”

The admiration between coaches is obvious, and this is a Rutgers team that has earned that respect. Even as the No. 2 team in the country right now, Michigan knows that if it doesn’t treat this game with adequate attention, Rutgers might finally do what was previously though impossible and break through with an upset.

But while mutual respect exists between the programs, Michigan is still in another echelon of the Big Ten right now. It’s chasing College Football Playoff berths and championship trophies. Meanwhile, the Scarlet Knights are still looking for their first winning season since 2014. Schiano might have played the Wolverines tough recently, but close scores aren’t wins — at least not yet. And for all the progress his program has made, Michigan has gotten better, too.

This Saturday, Rutgers will try to pull the ultimate upset on a Wolverines team whose expectations lie deep into the postseason. Trying to play spoiler, the Scarlet Knights are the most complete they’ve been since before Schiano left for the NFL. Under his tutelage, they’ve knocked on the door of an upset multiple times, only to come away empty handed. 

But if recent trends continue — and Michigan gets complacent — Schiano might finally earn the win he has been chasing all along.