PISCATAWAY — For a fleeting moment, HighPoint.com stadium broke out into riotous cheers.
With 39 seconds left in the first quarter, Rutgers running back Isaih Pacheco found a gaping hole through the teeth of the No. 4 Michigan football team’s No.1-ranked defense — an accomplishment of its own. Then he kept running, past a flat-footed secondary and into the endzone for an 80-yard touchdown and the longest rush since the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten in 2014.
“The immediate response is we’ve been through a lot worse,” said junior defensive end Rashan Gary. “One touchdown is not gonna hurt us. We’ve got to get back to playing football.
“And that’s what we did.”
The moment — an explosion of excitement from fans who rarely experience it — faded. It was never Rutgers’ (0-7 Big Ten, 1-9 overall) night, nor was it supposed to be. The Wolverines (7-0, 9-1) eventually settled in and cruised to a 42-7 win, spearheaded by junior quarterback Shea Patterson, who finished 18-for-27 for 260 yards and three touchdowns.
“That was a really tough night to throw the ball.” said coach Jim Harbaugh about the playing conditions. “… He made some throws that were just unbelievable. Put it in the right spot, with the wind blowing and swirling.”
Before Pacheco’s score, senior running back Karan Higdon found paydirt first on a drive featuring five different ball carriers to give Michigan the early lead.
On the drive following the 80-yard touchdown, Higdon scored again from one yard out. Both of the Wolverines’ touchdowns could have materialized into longer scores, but wind and dropped passes kept its longest play to 16 yards.
That was until the 5:07 mark in the second quarter. Secondary miscommunication allowed sophomore wide receiver Nico Collins to streak unchecked and open for an easy 36-yard toss from Patterson to bring a 21-7 lead into halftime.
“It was like, the (defensive back) passed me off and it was one-on-one with the safeties in the middle of the field, so I thought ‘I’ve got a chance to make this play,’ ” Collins said. “And once he passed me off I’m like, ‘It’s just me back here, the safety is nowhere near here,’ and I got the ball.”
Rutgers, meanwhile, met expectations of mediocrity in the first 30 minutes: no sacks or tackles-for-loss, cornerback confusion, a shanked punt, zero first-half passing yards despite two completions and so on. But the infrequent chunk yardage plays and sluggishness from Michigan were enough to warrant praise from Collins.
“They came out and they were ready to play,” Collins said. “They had nothing to lose so they came out there with a little chip on their shoulder and try to beat us. … They came out with their A-game.”
Then the second half happened. Both teams and fanbases probably wish it hadn’t.
Already without safety Josh Metellus and cornerback Lavert Hill to respective soft tissue and head injuries according to Harbaugh, the Michigan defense saw linemen Kwity Paye and Josh Uche leave the field in pain.
And in terms of on-field excitement, it was few and far between.
Sparked by a reaching, 21-yard catch by tight end Zach Gentry on third down, Michigan kept its first drive of the half alive. It culminated with Patterson, given all day to throw, toying with the Rutgers defense on a broken play to find Oliver Martin for a 16-yard touchdown.
“The pocket awareness, finding where the quiet spot is — he looked as good as he’s ever looked tonight in the pocket,” Harbaugh said of Patterson. “Not panicking, moving suddenly, getting to the quiet spot.”
The Scarlet Knights ran a trick reverse pass later in the quarter which landed into the arms of backup quarterback Giovanni Rescigno for 17 yards.
Then Rutgers fumbled the ball away the next play. Then it punted the following series. Then it punted again.
Between these series, the Wolverines found the endzone off a 10-yard, back shoulder fade to Collins and a 61-yard run up the middle by Chris Evans.
“It was a one-on-one matchup,” Collins said of his second touchdown. “Shea just trusted me to make a play and that’s what we did. We like the matchup, and we’re gonna take that chance.”
A runaway win was hardly out of the question, even if the result and gameplay was uninspiring. The defense allowed just 59 passing yards, but 193 rushing yards. The offense dropped 42 points on the road, but was hardly reminiscent of the 78-0 victory from 2016.
Lessons from the game can be interpreted any which way, but one thing still stands — Michigan just had to get through this game as it awaits its next big test at the end of the season in Ohio State.
“I feel like we need to stop coming out slow, but we still got the win,” Collins said.
It’s the perfect explanation of Saturday’s game.