When a team starts its season in as dominant a fashion as the Michigan football team did this year, the checklists start coming out.
Have they beaten a Power Five team? A conference foe? A ranked opponent?
Saturday, after checking each of those three boxes in the last three weeks, the fourth-ranked Wolverines are moving on to item No. 4: Can they keep it up on the road?
In their way will be Rutgers, a name that may not inspire significant fear in fans, but one Michigan will have to take seriously. In 2014, the first time Michigan ever visited Piscataway, the Scarlet Knights upset the Wolverines and their fans stormed the field.
That year, it was just one more loss in a season that featured many. This year, Michigan can’t afford to slip.
After beating then-No. 8 Wisconsin, 14-7, last week, the Wolverines are firmly in the picture for the College Football Playoff. Many steep tests remain, including road games at Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State, but to reach those games with its chances intact, Michigan will first have to prove it can win away from Michigan Stadium.
“It’s always fun to go into somebody’s house, and right there you’re kind of backed up against the wall, you’ve got a lot of adversity because you’re going against their home crowd,” said senior tight end Jake Butt. “They’re hyped up, (a lot of) energy, but nothing’s better than silencing 50, 60, 70 thousand people, hearing that stadium quiet after you know you’re making big plays or you have the opportunity to win a game like that.”
And with how prolific the Wolverines’ offense has been to start the year, they may not have to wait long for that silence.
Even after being held to two touchdowns last week, Michigan is ranked No. 10 in the nation in scoring offense (44.4 points per game), going up against a Rutgers team ranked No. 97 in scoring defense (32.4 points). That means redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight will have an opportunity to correct what some saw as questionable throws last week against Badgers.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh defended Speight’s decision-making after the game, but Speight did throw his second interception.
Rutgers’ rush defense is among the nation’s worst, which means it could be a big day for senior running back De’Veon Smith and the rest of Michigan’s four-man stable of backs.
But while touchdowns may be the more common means of scoring, all eyes will be on the Wolverines’ kickers. Fifth-year senior Kenny Allen and sophomore Ryan Tice combined to miss three field goals against Wisconsin, prompting Harbaugh to open a kicking competition in practice this week.
With highly touted freshman Quinn Nordin back in the mix, any of the three could realistically emerge to kick Michigan’s field goals.
“There’s been competition there,” Harbaugh said Thursday on WXYT Radio, according to the Detroit Free Press. “We haven’t made a determination (on) who’s going to kick in the game. That competition will rage on. We’re just looking for somebody to put their iron jock on and kick the ball through the uprights.”
Outside of special teams, the other position under the microscope will be left tackle. With sophomore Grant Newsome out for the season with a knee injury, the Wolverines could look to any number of options to protect Speight’s blind side.
Redshirt sophomore Juwann Bushell-Beatty took over for Newsome in that game, but Harbaugh also posited that junior Mason Cole — who has been the Wolverines’ starter at center this season but started at left tackle last year — could slide out to his old position, or fifth-year senior left guard Ben Braden could move outside.
Whoever it is will be tasked with keeping Speight on his feet one week after he was sacked four times, the most of the season so far. The Scarlet Knights average 2.2 sacks per game, so while their rush defense leaves something to be desired, they have shown some ability to rush the quarterback.
Harbaugh said he would treat the game like a championship game, and while Rutgers’ 2-3 record doesn’t lend much credence to that sentiment, Michigan certainly can’t contend for a title without beating Rutgers.
Saturday’s game may not be circled on fans’ calendars, but it keeps the Wolverines moving down their checklist.