On Tuesday evening, Zak Zinter stood before a scrum of reporters at a podium in Oosterbaan Field House. Asked about the Michigan football team’s nation-leading rushing attack, a smile crept across his face.
“Our goal is, we want to make (defenses) quit,” Zinter said.
During Saturday’s 20-13 win over Rutgers (3-1 overall, 0-1 Big Ten), that mindset was clear. The Wolverines (4-0, 1-0) ran the ball 15 times on their opening possession — a 74-yard touchdown drive — compared to just two pass attempts. The play-calling balance served as a testament to Michigan’s commitment to running the football, but after a pair of rushing touchdowns by senior running back Hassan Haskins, the Scarlet Knights’ defensive front adjusted.
Rutgers beefed up around the line of scrimmage and made it hard for Michigan to clear holes, leaving junior quarterback Cade McNamara with plenty of opportunities to attack a secondary crippled by the loss of two suspended defensive backs. McNamara took advantage of single coverage throughout the first half as he completed eight-of-11 pass attempts for 156 yards.
Haskins’s two touchdowns gave the Wolverines an early cushion, but the second half told another story. An ill-advised fourth-down decision by the Scarlet Knights allowed Michigan to extend its lead to 17 at the break, and while that turning point could’ve opened the floodgates, the Wolverines failed to land a knockout blow at the beginning of the second half.
The Scarlet Knights’ defense held strong in their own territory before a 12-play, 91-yard touchdown drive trimmed Michigan’s lead to just 10 midway through the third quarter. The Wolverines’ offense couldn’t respond, beginning the second half with four consecutive three-and-outs.
“Offensively, we were clicking on all cylinders (in the first half),” McNamara said. “I think us losing that momentum and a couple of those stalls — for some reason, no matter what it was, running the ball or throwing the ball — we struggled a little bit to get that first first down. I think that’s what led to the struggle.”
As the four drives totaled just 11 yards, Rutgers took advantage. All told, they outgained Michigan 231-42 during the second half and made it a one-score game early in the fourth quarter.
The Wolverines had no answer when their run game tanked. For the first time all year, they struggled to assert their will and failed to run down another team’s throat. The offense became defined by stagnation and a glaring absence of adjustments. Michigan averaged a season-low 2.9 yards per carry, and four of McNamara’s five second-half pass attempts fell incomplete. The wheels fell off fast as boos rained down in Michigan Stadium.
“When they load the box like that, it’s going to come down to us beating man coverage,” McNamara said. “I’ve got to do a better job of throwing more accurate balls and we’ve got to do a better job overall offensively as a unit, me, wide receivers, running backs, being able to break man coverage.”
On the other side of the ball, Michigan saw its interior defensive line gashed by the Scarlet Knights’ read-option run game. The passing defense didn’t fare much better, as Rutgers exploited the flats during the second half.
But while most defenses would’ve battled fatigue, the Wolverines’ extended rotation kept players fresh. Fifth-year senior linebacker Josh Ross exited the game with an injury in the first half, but sophomores Nikhai Hill-Green and Kalel Mullings and freshman Junior Colson held down the fort for the linebacking corps. Along the defensive line, meanwhile, six different players recorded a tackle.
“We’re just conditioned,” Hill-Green said. “We’re built for it. I feel like we could’ve went out there and played a whole other game.”
Rutgers and Michigan entered Saturday as the only two Power Five teams yet to commit a turnover. But with the Scarlet Knights trailing by a touchdown as the clock wound down, junior edge rusher David Ojabo ripped the ball out and Colson fell on the fumble.
The defense bent throughout the second half, but it didn’t break when it mattered most. In fact, it did the opposite. In a game defined by sloppy execution, it was the Wolverines’ defense that came up with the game-winning play.
“Gritty game. It wasn’t pretty,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “When they start making a space for ‘pretty’ on the scoreboard, then we’ll worry about that. But it doesn’t go up on the scoreboard.”