All week, an introspective air enveloped Schembechler Hall.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh began the week by taking the blame for the Wolverines’ 35-14 loss to Wisconsin on Saturday. His players followed up by criticizing their lack of effort and physicality. Both coaches who spoke Wednesday — linebackers coach Anthony Campanile and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis — agreed the performance was unacceptable.
None of that will change Saturday when Rutgers comes to town. ESPN’s Power Index ranks the Scarlet Knights last among power conference teams. In the Harbaugh era, Michigan has beaten them by an average of 41.8 points per game.
So with victory not in much doubt despite the Wolverines’ lackluster start, here are five things to watch for Saturday that will impact the trajectory of Michigan’s season:
The final score
Yes, the final score does matter.
Obviously, Michigan needs to win. A loss would be the undisputed worst result of the Harbaugh era and legitimize concern over his future. But with the Wolverines favored by 27.5, that shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
What is an issue is the margin of victory. A repeat of week one’s 19-point win over Middle Tennessee would amplify concerns that this is the same uninspiring team that has slogged through its first three games.
A look at Michigan’s margins of victory over the past two years shows how much blowing out inferior opposition means. In the Wolverines’ 10-win season a year ago, they won four games by at least 35. The year before, their biggest margin of victory was 25, en route to an 8-5 finish.
No opponent has better exemplified this difference than Rutgers. In the best year of the Harbaugh era, Michigan beat the Scarlet Knights, 78-0. Ten-win seasons in 2015 and 2018 saw the Wolverines win by 33 and 35, respectively. In that lackluster 2017 season, they won by just 21 at home.
How Michigan uses its receivers
If there was a positive to take away from Michigan’s demolition in Madison last weekend, it came from its receivers’ performances in the dying minutes.
All offseason, the assumption was that new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ offense would emphasize junior receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Tarik Black. Instead, those three have just 33 targets combined so far (Peoples-Jones missed the first two weeks with injury).
Saturday, they finally became a major part of the gameplan, but only once the game was well out of reach.
“We’re not where we need to be in that room,” Gattis said of his receivers. “That falls on me. I gotta continue to get those guys better. We gotta continue to play with great detail and execute the fundamentals properly on each play that is important. When their level of play increases, it’ll also help everyone else.”
While Gattis’ hire was never about games like Rutgers, it will take a step toward what was promised with an increased emphasis on those three receivers.
Zach Charbonnet’s usage
In week two against Army, it seemed Michigan had its solution at running back. Freshman Zach Charbonnet saw 33 carries and turned them into 100 yards and a touchdown.
For all the early concern about the Wolverines’ offense, running back wasn’t one of them.
Then rumors began to swirl over Charbonnet’s health. Against Wisconsin, he had just six yards on two carries, leading Harbaugh to explain that he was “limited” after the game.
The result was a woefully inefficient run game. On the first carry of the day, fullback-turned-defensive-tackle Ben Mason picked up three yards before fumbling. Backup quarterback Dylan McCaffrey led Michigan with 21 yards, as the Wolverines finished with 40 yards on 19 attempts.
Both Gattis and Harbaugh remained mum on Charbonnet’s health this week, but a repeat of his showing against Army would help quell concerns over the run game.
Patterson looking for bounce-back game
While the Wolverines gained just 2.1 yards per carry against Wisconsin, their performance through the air wasn’t much better.
Patterson posted his the lowest regular-season passer rating of his Michigan career, while completing just 14-of-32 passes. He repeatedly made the wrong reads, eschewing open receivers to throw into coverage and missing multiple ordinarily routine throws.
“Shea’s been out there in practice, and I think he’s preparing,” Gattis said. “There’s a level of remorse that he has. As far as some of the pressure that’s been applied to him, as well as some of the pressure that he’s put himself under. I believe in Shea. I believe in every one of our players. Shea has 100 percent of my support just like anyone else does.”
Part of the concern with Patterson has been his health. He suffered an oblique injury early in the season opener, before hurting his shoulder against Wisconsin, while the offensive line struggled to protect him. But with McCaffrey out with a concussion, Michigan has little choice but to keep Patterson under center.
Last year against Rutgers, he completed 18-of-27 passes for 260 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. A repeat of that performance would go a long way toward proving he can be the quarterback Michigan thought it had coming into the season.
How the interior defensive line bounces back
Of all the mishaps the Wolverines had against Wisconsin, their defensive line stood out.
While the offseason concern was over Michigan’s losses at defensive end and linebacker, the graduations of Bryan Mone and Lawrence Marshall loomed large against the Badgers.
Each of the last two seasons, Wisconsin’s offense has centered around All-American running back Jonathan Taylor. Last year, anchored by Mone and Marshall, the Wolverines held Taylor to a respectable 101 yards on 17 carries. Saturday, he doubled that total, rushing for 203 yards on 23 tries.
With Michael Dwumfour and Donovan Jeter both limited by injury, Michigan has tried to replace Mone and Marshall’s production in myriad ways. Senior Carlo Kemp has been a stalwart at one spot, but both Mason and defensive end Aidan Hutchinson have seen heavy usage next to him, each to limited success.
Both Dwumfour and Jeter should be healthy, though, and strong performances from either player alongside Kemp would help solidify Michigan’s troublesome run defense going forward.
Michigan’s going to win, and it won’t be close. That much is a given. But with the offense and defense both searching for their identities, it’ll be a lot closer — and less inspiring — than the Wolverines want.
Prediction: Michigan, 38-13