PISCATAWAY — For the Michigan football team, Saturday night’s trip to Rutgers was supposed to be a layup.
But after limping halfway across the country with their first 1-3 record since 1967, the Wolverines nearly hit a new rock bottom against a team that entered with a 1-24 record in its last 25 Big Ten games.
Now in the sixth season of the Jim Harbaugh era, the expectation is to stomp on the conference’s doormat. In reality, Saturday night was anything besides that. But when Michigan (2-3) needed it most, it found a way to will itself to a 48-42 triple-overtime victory over the Scarlet Knights (1-4).
Once again, the Wolverines did themselves no favors early on. They haven’t scored points on an opening drive yet this season, and they’ve failed to pick up a first down on three of five. In Saturday’s case, a promising series ended when sophomore receiver Cornelius Johnson coughed up the ball inside the Rutgers 30-yard-line after an 18-yard catch.
On Michigan’s ensuing drive, junior quarterback Joe Milton was stuffed at the line of scrimmage on fourth-and-1. The Wolverines followed that up with a three-and-out — a series that went two yards in the wrong direction. With starting offensive linemen Jalen Mayfield, Ryan Hayes and Andrew Vastardis all out due to injury, Michigan struggled to get any push up front.
Execution was even worse on the defensive side of the ball. Rutgers beat the Wolverines deep, caught them out of position with a double reverse and duped them with a quarterback draw on third-and-15 in the first half.
The result? Seventeen unanswered points for the Scarlet Knights. By the midway point of the second quarter, the Wolverines found themselves on the ropes in the unlikeliest of environments.
But instead of wilting, the 17-0 deficit marked the beginning of the third-largest comeback in program history.
“We’re a great group of men always fighting,” sophomore defensive tackle Chris Hinton said. “It doesn’t matter what happened the past three weeks. We’ve got a short memory, and today just shows we’re going to fight no matter the circumstance.”
Needing a change, Harbaugh benched Milton in favor of backup quarterback Cade McNamara. The sophomore delivered immediately, finding Johnson for a 46-yard touchdown on just his third play. His steady hand keyed the Wolverines’ rally, as he completed 27 of his 36 passes for 260 yards and five total touchdowns.
“Just really (took it) play by play, drive by drive,” McNamara said. “In my career, I’ve been down really bigger than that at halftime and everything, so I feel like I have a comfort level when it comes to coming from behind. It didn’t really faze me. … Coach (Josh) Gattis is always preaching, ‘Believe in each other, trust each other, trust the coaches.’ Really, that’s what it took for us to come back and win.”
Added Harbaugh: “Cade was outstanding. Really gritty performance in all ways. Super tough. Executed. Was outstanding. His play was inspiring. Yeah, can’t say enough great things. So proud of him.”
A touchdown grab by sophomore receiver Mike Sainristil at the beginning of the fourth quarter gave Michigan its first lead since walking off the field in Minneapolis on Oct. 24, but it wasn’t enough to get the Wolverines across the finish line. Defensive coordinator Don Brown’s defense squandered an eight-point lead with less than five minutes remaining, allowing the Scarlet Knights to drive 75 yards in 16 plays and convert the game-tying two-point attempt with 27 seconds left.
That’s become an all-too-predictable outcome for a Michigan defense still trying to find its footing five games into the season. Brown’s unit allowed conversions on third-and-nine, third-and-11 and fourth-and-nine at the end of regulation. Yet in overtime, it held its ground when the game depended on it.
After trading missing field goals in the first overtime, McNamara answered a quick Scarlet Knight touchdown with a read option keeper. Junior running back Hassan Haskins — who finished with 110 rushing yards on 22 carries — leapt into the end zone on fourth-and-goal to open the third overtime, and sophomore safety Daxton Hill came away with a game-sealing interception to win the game on Rutgers’ possession.
“This week, I think we got our swagger back a little bit,” McNamara said. “… To come out with a win feels good.”
It wasn’t a cakewalk, but the Wolverines escaped Piscataway with a trampoline to halt their free fall.