In the fourth quarter, up 38 points, Michigan went for it on fourth down.
The Wolverines’ latest scoring drive had been courtesy of third-string quarterback Joe Milton and fourth-string running back Hassan Haskins. Facing fourth-and-goal at the one-yard line with the game all but over, Michigan could’ve been forgiven for mailing it in and kicking the field goal. Instead, Milton ran a bootleg, scored a touchdown and mocked ripping open his shirt, a la Superman.
Last week, in a blowout loss to Wisconsin, the 20th-ranked Wolverines (3-1 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) seemed to lack confidence and, more than that, killer instinct. While it’s hard to prove much against Rutgers (1-3, 0-2), likely the worst team in the Big Ten, Saturday proved about as good a redemption game as Michigan could’ve hoped for. It played like a team with something to prove, running up the score in a 52-0 win. It was the team’s first shutout since 2016.
“Definitely helps us a lot as a team get that confidence back,” said sophomore linebacker Cam McGrone. “Because last week was a little down but this game with this goose egg, it definitely lifted our spirits.”
The calls for senior quarterback Shea Patterson’s job reached a fever pitch after last week’s setback, but Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh kept the faith in his signal-caller, and a week after not even completing half his passes, Patterson completed 17 of 23 passes for 276 yards, throwing a touchdown and running for three more.
Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis spent the game calling plays on the sideline instead of from the box, wanting to be a little more hands-on. And though Rutgers hardly offered a test, the move seemed to help. Patterson seemed more comfortable in the pocket, ably scrambling and making plays with his feet. Michigan trusted its receivers to make plays — the combination of juniors Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black. That trio, along with sophomore Ronnie Bell, combined for 14 catches for 248 yards in what could be the beginning of a more involved passing game. That was evident from the first two drives.
In each of the past three games, Michigan fumbled its opening drive away. But this week, on the fifth play of the drive, Patterson found an open Nico Collins along the sideline. Collins then turned upfield and ran for a 48-yard touchdown. After forcing a three-and-out, the Wolverines got the ball back and — after the Scarlet Knights extended the drive with two defensive penalties — Patterson perfectly placed a ball to Peoples-Jones just short of the end zone. Two plays later, on third-and-goal, Patterson took it in himself on a bootleg.
“Everybody was hungry,” Peoples-Jones said. “Everybody wanted to make a play.”
And even when things didn’t quite go right, the Wolverines fought through it in a way they couldn’t last week. When the defense struggled in a late-first quarter drive, sophomore defensive end Aidan Hutchinson hit Scarlet Knights quarterback Artur Sitkowski and stopped him short on fourth down from the 5-yard line. After Patterson threw a red-zone interception in the third quarter, the defense stopped Rutgers on fourth-and-1 at its own 41-yard line, then the offense marched down the field. Bell fought for every extra yard after a catch in the third quarter and pushed his defenders all the way to the 1-yard line, setting up a Patterson quarterback sneak for Michigan’s fifth touchdown of the day.
“There was a lot of trust there,” Harbaugh said. “Players trusting the coaches, coaches trusting the players, and a lot of work. It was good to see it pay off in a victory that was much needed.”
After the debacle in Madison, it was just the kind of win the Wolverines needed, and even with all caveats attached, they played with the kind of spark that was missing the first three weeks. They wore the Scarlet Knights down to a pulp and maintained their intensity throughout.
At least for a day, all the questions surrounding Michigan quieted to a hush.