The Michigan football team got punched in the mouth. 

Just three plays from scrimmage and a mere minute into its game against Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights took control with a 69-yard passing touchdown that hushed Michigan Stadium. The Wolverines trailed for the first time all season, and the upstart Scarlet Knights tried to play spoiler.

But as the game wore on, No. 2 Michigan (4-0 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) used momentum-capturing plays to gain control of the game during coach Jim Harbaugh’s return from a three-game suspension. From interceptions to trick plays and multiple fourth-down statements, the Wolverines hit Rutgers (3-1, 1-1) with blow after blow to ensure that a bad start didn’t turn into an upset loss.

“That’s one of those plays right at the start of the game that could make the ordinary person or team flinch,” Harbaugh said, referencing how defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale told the team not to flinch when tested. “And that’s the first thing I thought of, and when I got back into the locker room after the game, it was like ‘They didn’t flinch, Coach Clink.’ They did not.”

That’s true — the Wolverines might not have flinched. But they also didn’t deliver their own blows early on. For much of the first half, the game felt like a boxing match in which both sides felt each other out. Neither convincingly pulled ahead, leaving each side with nothing but a headache.

Eventually, Rutgers let its guard down just enough late in the first quarter. Junior running back Donovan Edwards went in motion and snagged a field-flipping reception. Then, Edwards took a crafty reverse pitch and lateralled it to J.J. McCarthy. The junior quarterback passed it to sophomore tight end Colston Loveland in stride for Michigan’s own surprise punch that electrified the offense. When junior running back Blake Corum ran in a two-yard rushing touchdown on the very next play, Michigan had tied the game at seven with a statement 94-yard drive.

“We planned that (play) all week,” Corum said of the Loveland reception. “We practiced that, we repped it and then we were able to punch it in. So that second drive was a huge part of the game and a very good part of the game.”

Remember, though — this was still a boxing match. And neither team had delivered a knockout blow. But as Michigan gained a little bit of energy off its cheeky trick play, it kept stacking big moments on top of it. 

Look no further than Mike Sainristil’s pick-six.

After the Wolverines scored a field goal on their opening drive of the second half, they faced a Rutgers drive in which it passed for 10 straight plays. The Scarlet Knights didn’t even think about running the ball, even against a short fourth-and-two from Michigan’s 27-yard line.

Michigan didn’t just earn a big stop though — it made a statement, spoken into existence by the graduate cornerback.

You see, Sainristil is known around Michigan as a steady presence on the field, but he was fallible against Rutgers. His coverage mistake led to the opening touchdown, so he promised to make up for it.

“Good players make mistakes,” Sainristil said. “… I kind of brushed it off right away. I said, ‘I’m gonna get you one back.’ And I told Coach Clinkscale going into the third quarter — I told him I’mma get one.”

So as Rutgers dropped into a screen on that fourth-and-two, Sainristil jumped in front of the receiver and picked off the pass. Flipping junior linebacker Junior Colson over as he returned the ball, Sainristil sprinted up the middle of the field for a 71-yard pick-six.

Sainristil’s interception was one of three fourth down tries by Rutgers, all of which were parried by the Wolverines. On their own tries, they converted two fourth downs off a Corum run and a McCarthy scramble.

Not only did the Sainristil interception give Michigan a commanding 24-7 lead, but it injected energy into the Wolverines and reinstated the narrative that they were expected to win this game handily. With that confidence, they never flinched. After another stout defensive stop, Corum punched in another short rushing touchdown and sealed the 31-7 win. 

“Look, they’re a very good football team,” Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. “You have to make sure you are on point with everything. Because if you’re not, it’s not just a gain — it’s a touchdown. If you’re not, it’s not just a PBU — it’s a pick-six.”

From the outside, no one misunderstood the power dynamic to this game. The Scarlet Knights were ham-and-eggers, set up to be knocked down by the dynamic Wolverines. But that first, silencing touchdown distorted the narrative. 

Michigan surely wishes it handled its business even more effectively, but all its playmakers aligned to topple Rutgers after an ambush start. With its mettle tested to open the Big Ten schedule, it took control of the game.

“We gave them one free one,” Colson said. “… At the end of the day, we trust our players in any type of man (coverage), so we went right back to it. We believe in our teammate, believe in our player. So take it out of your head. Go out there and play ball.”

After a suckerpunch to start the game, the Wolverines indeed played ball. In doing so, they showed just how much they can fight back.