Four weeks have passed since the No. 17 Michigan football team’s 38-0 rout of Northwestern, the last game the Wolverines played that wasn’t close. Their two games since then have hinged on the final play.
While they split those games, their dominance was gone. Saturday gives them a chance to re-establish it.
Rutgers (1-4 Big Ten, 3-5 overall) limps into Michigan Stadium off two straight losses by an average of 40 points. The Scarlet Knights’ first visit to the Big House comes against a Michigan team with five players, including redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers, from Rutgers’ home state of New Jersey.
The Scarlet Knights rank in the bottom half of the country in almost every major category, including 111th in total defense and 100th in scoring defense. The Wolverines preyed on such teams earlier this season, grabbing national headlines and moving into the Associated Press Top 25 poll along the way.
If the Scarlet Knights aren’t careful, Saturday’s game could go similarly.
By this point in the season, it’s clear that this isn’t the same Michigan team that lost in Piscataway last year. Despite a last-second loss to Michigan State on Oct. 17, the Wolverines (3-1 Big Ten, 6-2 overall) have an outside shot in the Big Ten title race. They’re more efficient on offense, stronger on defense and more explosive on special teams than they were in 2014.
“Last year, as we were going into the game, I thought they were a very physical football team, very talented,” said Rutgers coach Kyle Flood. “But they play the game differently on offense now than they did last year, a little bit more of a pro-style offense.”
There are a few variables, though, that could keep the game close if they tilt in Rutgers’ favor. One is the health of the quarterback who leads Michigan’s pro-style offense: fifth-year senior Jake Rudock.
Rudock left Saturday’s game against Minnesota after sustaining a hard hit in the third quarter. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh confirmed Monday that he does not have a concussion, but rather soreness in his ribs and back. He said the criteria for Rudock playing are that he’s the best option in whatever state he’s in, and that he will not aggravate his injury by playing.
Offensive coordinator Tim Drevno indicated Wednesday those would not be concerns, saying Rudock was an active participant in practice with no setbacks. Behind Rudock, redshirt freshman Wilton Speight is unproven, even after leading a comeback Saturday. If Rudock can’t go or is limited Saturday, it could be an issue.
The running game may also be a question for Michigan. Junior running back De’Veon Smith limped off Saturday and finished with just nine carries, though Drevno said he, too, is practicing. Fellow junior Ty Isaac missed Saturday’s game with what Harbaugh called an “internal matter.” Harbaugh declined to elaborate.
Redshirt junior Drake Johnson picked up the slack, carrying 10 times for 55 yards Saturday, but he might be in a tough spot if Green, Isaac or both miss this week’s game.
Rutgers also has a wild card of its own: wide receiver Leonte Carroo. A suspension and an injury have limited the senior to just five games this season, but in those contests, he caught 24 passes for 527 yards and nine touchdowns. Carroo is questionable for Saturday’s game with a lower-body injury that sidelined him last week against Wisconsin.
Flood said Monday that if the game were that day, Carroo would not play. He had not yet been medically cleared, but if he’s a go for Saturday, he’s one of few Rutgers players who could give Michigan some problems.
But at the end of the day, all of those are “ifs.” After thrilling finishes in each of their past two games, the Wolverines shouldn’t have nearly as much trouble this week. A more comfortable win is more likely, and Michigan could use it, too, with tougher games at Indiana, at Penn State and versus Ohio State in the final quarter of the regular-season schedule.