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PISCATAWAY ­– Once again, the No. 5 Michigan football team started slowly.

After an opening drive touchdown, the Wolverines took blow after blow from Rutgers and went into halftime down by three – their first halftime deficit of the season.

During the intermission, the concourse at SHI Stadium was buzzing. Swathes of Scarlet Knight faithful perused the concourse with smiles painting onto their faces. In college football, if you are leading or even in a game at the half, you have a shot to win it – and Rutgers looked the part.

By the time the fourth quarter came around, the stadium was mostly empty, and the scoreboard could’ve fooled a channel surfer into thinking the Wolverines dominated the game as they were expected.

Michigan blew out a team that it was supposed to blow out, who cares?

Even Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh only really saw the positives after the game.

“It’s good, better start than we had the last time we were here,” Harbaugh said.

But that just wasn’t quite the full story. There’s a trend for the Wolverines that reared its ugly head once again in Piscataway, and at a certain point, it could cost them.

Sure, Michigan won big on the road, and with a 9-0 record looks to be one the best teams in the country – a true national title contender.

But it’s for that second reason that the Wolverines need to be looked at through a harsher lens than most. This is now four games in a row where Michigan has not looked the part in the first half. Tied with a bad Indiana team at halftime in Bloomington, only up two over then- No. 10 Penn State, barely holding onto a six-point lead over Michigan State and now tonight.

In the second half of all of those games, the Wolverines rolled – outscoring their opponents by an absurd margin of 100-3. But imagine the discourse around this Michigan team if it played that well in both halves of games.

Instead, the Wolverines were glossed over in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, being placed at No. 5 when many thought they were a lock for the top four. Obviously, that doesn’t really matter – teams ahead are losing and they still fully control their own destiny – but it goes to show that Michigan isn’t viewed in the same tier as the nation’s elite.

It’s almost impossible to judge these Wolverines, everything they seem to do so well comes with an asterisk.

Take, for example, sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy. Sure, he elevates the offense’s ceiling compared to last year, but he can’t hit a deep ball to save his life during game action. At this point, opposing defenses are practically begging him to beat them, full-selling to stop junior running back Blake Corum and the ground game. 

Still, the discourse around McCarthy from the coaching staff strikes the same chord every week at this point:

“(McCarthy) missed the deep ball by a couple of inches,” Harbaugh said Saturday, referring to McCarthy’s miss of a wide-open sophomore wide receiver Andrel Anthony streaking down the field. “We’re hitting those in practice, and we’re really close on them in the games.”

But as for most things, simply being really close is not worth much – and it’s certainly not worth any points. That’s a prime example of the type of thing that Michigan needs to start getting if it wants to reach the next level. If McCarthy hits Anthony in stride, the game is 14-0 in the blink of an eye and essentially put away by the second quarter.

Again, though, the Wolverines still blew out Rutgers, and that’s because they’re a really good team. Michigan can even be great: You’ve seen it, I’ve seen it. When this team is clicking, it can be scary.

“Sky’s the limit,” junior running back Blake Corum said. “I don’t even think we know what we’re capable of, but we know we’re capable of amazing things. … We can go as far as we want to.”

So before you go to the streets to celebrate the Wolverines vanquishing the mighty Scarlet Knights, allow me to leave you with a question:

What happens if Michigan has the exact same issues with slow starts on Nov. 26 in Columbus?

Not a single Wolverine player or fan wants to find out. Because it just might not go their way.

If Michigan wants to be a national title contender, it needs to play like one for a full 60 minutes. Right now, that isn’t something it’s done yet — and time is running out.