In the past two games, against Penn State and Wisconsin, the Michigan football team has allowed 209 total passing yards.
The last time the Wolverines played at Rutgers, they gave up 404.
In that meeting on Oct. 4, 2014, the Scarlet Knights knocked off a reeling Michigan team, dropped the Wolverines to 2-4 and rushed the field in a night game at High Point Solutions Stadium.
Another outcome like that is highly improbable when Michigan visits Piscataway this time. The Wolverines are 5-0 and ranked fourth in the country. The Scarlet Knights are 2-3 and coming off a 58-0 loss to Ohio State.
Here’s what to watch for in the teams’ third-ever meeting:
1. Who protects Wilton Speight?
One question Michigan has is at left tackle, where starter Grant Newsome suffered a season-ending knee injury last week against Wisconsin. Redshirt sophomore Juwann Bushell-Beatty replaced him Saturday and is the leading candidate to start this week, but he has not played significant minutes in a Michigan uniform.
The other options are junior center Mason Cole and fifth-year senior left guard Ben Braden, but both of them would also require inexperienced replacements at their current positions. Cole is an intriguing option, having started every game in 2014 and 2015 at left tackle, but the next man up at center would be redshirt sophomore Patrick Kugler, who has scarcely played in his career so far.
Rutgers has 11 sacks this season, four by defensive lineman Julian Pinnix-Odrick. The Wolverines gave up four last week against Wisconsin, so they’ll need to shore up their issues to keep Speight protected in the pocket.
2. Does Kenny Allen have an answer? Does Ryan Tice?
Allen has been uncharacteristically shaky in the past three weeks, converting one of three field-goal attempts against Colorado on Sept. 17 and then going 0-for-2 against Wisconsin on Saturday. Coach Jim Harbaugh benched him after his last miss and replaced him with Ryan Tice, who missed a 40-yarder. True freshman Quinn Nordin is also back from an injury, according to a radio interview from Harbaugh on Thursday morning.
Harbaugh declared an open kicking competition this week, and he has not spoken with media since that competition began. Allen’s track record — he was 18-for-22 last season — would imply that he could regain his consistency, but whoever it is, Michigan needs an answer.
3. How often does Michigan get in the backfield?
Of all of the mismatches between these two teams, the Wolverines’ defensive front against Rutgers’ offensive line may be the biggest, as it is with most of Michigan’s opponents. The Wolverines sack their opponents an average of four times per game, and the Scarlet Knights just gave up four sacks against Ohio State.
The strength of Michigan’s pass rush is its depth — the 20 sacks have come from different players, and seven players have at least two apiece. Two of those, tackle Maurice Hurst and end Chase Winovich, aren’t even starters. Anyone could break out this week, from the defensive line or the linebackers, on one of coordinator Don Brown’s blitzes.
Rutgers is battle-tested — in their season opener, the Scarlet Knights played Washington, one of the three teams in the country with more sacks per game than Michigan. And the Scarlet Knights have started the same offensive line in all five games this season, so perhaps the continuity has helped. But those five have to be ready for the pass rush.
4. Who are the first players off the bench?
There’s always the chance that Michigan comes out flat in its first road trip of the season after five straight home games. And there’s always the chance Rutgers is more fired up, playing a home night game. But if Saturday is anything like Ohio State’s 58-0 drubbing of the Scarlet Knights last week, the Wolverines will have another chance to give their backups some action.
Two big names to watch for are freshman cornerbacks David Long and Lavert Hill. They’re both young but talented, and they moved up a spot on the depth chart when fifth-year senior Jeremy Clark tore his ACL against Penn State. Redshirt sophomore Brandon Watson steps in at nickelback, but cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich said Wednesday he would like to get Long and Hill some reps this week so that they’re prepared.
Saturday would also be a good time for Michigan to establish another threat at wide receiver. Sophomore Grant Perry has been capable as a third option, but most of the targets have gone to fifth-year seniors Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson.
Finally, the distribution of carries to the running backs will be interesting to see. The Wolverines have rotated running backs at will this season. In the most recent example, sophomore Karan Higdon didn’t play against Wisconsin after rushing for two touchdowns the week before. Higdon, De’Veon Smith, Ty Isaac and Chris Evans are all options again this week. Expect Michigan to go with the best fit.