Last season, the Michigan football team was the victim of Rutgers’ first-ever Big Ten win, when the Scarlet Knights topped the Wolverines, 26-24, in Piscataway. Rutgers fans stormed the field, celebrating a momentous victory in school history.
Saturday, the Scarlet Knights will take the field at Michigan Stadium, looking to pull off an even more stunning upset over No. 17 Michigan.
Here’s what to watch for when the teams take the field on Saturday.
1. Who lines up under center?
A week after redshirt freshman Wilton Speight led the Wolverines to a comeback win over Minnesota, there remains a hint of uncertainty over fifth-year senior Jake Rudock’s status.
Offensive coordinator Tim Drevno said Wednesday that he expects Rudock to play, but his status will remain at least slightly uncertain until he walks onto the field for the Wolverines’ first drive. Harbaugh likes a little mystery leading up to games because it forces his opponents to work a harder while game planning. Rudock’s injury leaves just enough doubt that Rutgers will have to at least do some cursory preparation for Speight.
While Speight’s performance last Saturday was enough to intrigue fans, it remains clear that Rudock is the team’s best option at quarterback. Michigan can survive his absence but is better off with No. 15 in the huddle.
2. How many snaps does Jabrill Peppers get on offense?
Speaking of players lining up at quarterback, redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers has lined up just about everywhere for the Wolverines this season. Against Minnesota last season, Peppers was on the field for more than 90 plays, including a few at quarterback.
Michigan likely won’t need to use Peppers as much against Rutgers, but he remains the Wolverines’ best big-play threat in any phase of the game. Peppers has only been on offense the last two weeks, so we have yet to see how Harbaugh wants to use him in games that aren’t close. Unless Rutgers has some tricks up its sleeve, we could well find out this week.
If Peppers continues to get touches in a blowout, it might be a good indicator that he has secured a regular spot in the rotation. Conversely, if he sticks to defense and special teams, that could signal he’s a weapon only to be used in case of emergency.
3. Can the secondary return to its pre-Michigan State form?
Not only did Michigan lose its three-game shutout streak against the Spartans, the Wolverines’ secondary seemed to lose its form, too. Two consecutive quarterbacks — Michigan State’s Connor Cook and Minnesota’s Mitch Leidner — have thrown for more than 300 yards against the Wolverines, calling into question a secondary that once appeared to be among the best in the nation.
Rutgers quarterback Chris Laviano isn’t on the level of Cook or Leidner, but the Scarlet Knights aren’t afraid to throw the ball, especially to Leonte Carroo, arguably the Big Ten’s best receiver. Carroo is battling an ankle injury and is questionable for Saturday’s game.
If Carroo plays, look for junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis to be matched up with him. Lewis has already broken up 15 passes this season, and three more would tie him with Marlin Jackson (2002) for the school’s single-season record.
Breaking up three passes in one game is no easy feat, but if Carroo plays, it’s possible Lewis could get the chance against the Scarlet Knights because of the number of targets he would face.
4. Who will the carry fairy tap?
Redshirt junior running back Drake Johnson credited the carry fairy on Tuesday for his heavier workload against the Golden Gophers. Saturday will show if the fairy likes repeat success at the running back position.
So far this year, junior De’Veon Smith has gotten the bulk of the carries. But with his health slightly uncertain, and Johnson’s emergence as a back who can find holes and burst through them, it’s entirely conceivable that Johnson could take hold of the lead job.
Multiple backs will see time against the Scarlet Knights, but Johnson can grab hold of the race with a big game Saturday. Plus, this is about the same time of year that Johnson took over the lion’s share of carries last season before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament against Ohio State. If he is going to replicate his production from last November, Rutgers’ less-than-stellar defense is a great team to start against.