With two losses on the season, it might seem as if the Michigan football team (2-2 Big Ten, 5-2 overall) doesn’t have much left to play for.
But according to the Wolverines, that isn’t at all the case. Even with a lowly opponent like Rutgers, which suffered a notorious 78-0 loss to Michigan in its own stadium a season ago, coach Jim Harbaugh and his team spent the week stating that there would be no drop-off in their effort level.
While the Wolverines might be tempted to overlook them, this isn’t the same Scarlet Knights team as 2016. The new-and-improved Rutgers (2-2, 3-4) will likely pose a larger challenge than expected, and Michigan can’t afford any more slip ups this season.
Here’s what to watch for when the Wolverines face the Scarlet Knights on Saturday:
1. Will Brandon Peters see the field?
With each incomplete pass fifth-year senior quarterback John O’Korn threw against No. 2 Penn State, anticipation built for an appearance from the redshirt freshman signal caller.
Though Peters never ended up taking the field in State College, the Michigan faithful have made it clear that a change will be desired under center if O’Korn’s struggles persist. While the blame doesn’t fall solely on O’Korn’s shoulders, the Wolverines’ passing game has been practically nonexistent of late. And though the running game has stepped up to help close the gap, a one-dimensional offense doesn’t equate to a winning formula.
Even if this season isn’t pronounced over yet, Michigan should start looking to its future, especially with the amount of talent it will be returning next season. Peters is a major part of that youth movement.
With Michigan still favored to win, it wouldn’t hurt to see what the Wolverines might have to look forward to at the quarterback position.
2. Will the defense be able to reclaim the top spot in the nation?
In a battle of heavyweights, the Nittany Lions’ offense knocked Michigan’s then-top-ranked defense out cold. After giving up 42 points and 506 yards last Saturday, the Wolverines’ defense dropped to the fifth spot in the country.
Against Rutgers, Michigan will be eager to return to its prior form. Not only did the Wolverines post a shutout in Piscataway last season, but they have some experience with the type of offensive threat the Scarlet Knights pose. And it has nothing to do with Penn State running back Saquon Barkley.
Through the use of a run-heavy approach on offense, Michigan has indirectly prepared its defense to take on Rutgers’ ground game. The Scarlet Knights are ranked 62nd nationally in rushing offense with an average of 167.7 yards per game and a total of 15 touchdowns. For perspective, the Wolverines’ three-back rotation ranks 55th with 173.3 yards per game and 11 scores.
If Michigan can take advantage of that edge, it may be able to return to its desired position as the best unit in the nation.
3. Can the special teams unit break out big plays?
So far this year, the Wolverines’ special teams unit has teased big-play ability without many dividends — aside from a 79-yard punt return touchdown by freshman receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones in the third game of the season.
With freshman defensive back Ambry Thomas now set as Michigan’s kickoff returner, the two Detroit natives have a chance to show off their speed and cutting ability on a consistent basis. While both have provided solid yards after the catch, special teams coordinator Chris Partridge emphasized that the Wolverines are pushing them to be more explosive.
As Partridge explained this week, that will also take a concerted effort from the blockers. He has been encouraging the unit to step it up a level and make more plays, especially given how close many of the team’s games have been this season.
Chances are, Rutgers will be sending a lot of punts in the direction of Peoples-Jones, but even if things go awry and the Scarlet Knights kick off more than expected, Thomas will be there as well.
4. How will Michigan respond to being back in the Big House?
It has been awhile since the Wolverines played at Michigan Stadium, and it didn’t go very well the last time.
After two consecutive games on the road, the contest against Rutgers will mark three weeks since the Wolverines’ devastating loss to Michigan State. With a homecoming crowd awaiting its return, Michigan will look to rid itself of those nightmares.
And after the reception they received in front of an all-time record crowd at Beaver Stadium, playing in front of their home fans again will be a welcome sight for the Wolverines.