Here’s a sentence that hasn’t been written many times: Rutgers is 3-0.
Greg Schiano has his program trending in the right direction in his second season (of his second stint) as coach of the Scarlet Knights. In their first three games against Temple, Syracuse and Delaware, they’ve won by a combined score of 123-44. Not exactly a fierce gauntlet of competition, but hey, it’s Rutgers.
That said, here’s what to watch for on Saturday:
Defense: Short Out Routes
As a whole, Michigan’s defense has been solid through its first three games, and the improved secondary has played a major role in that. The Wolverines surrendered 191, 293 and 46 passing yards in each of those three games, many of which came well after the game was decided and the backups were in. Competition caveats aside, those are really strong numbers.
But in those rare circumstances where opposing offenses have found success, it’s been in the short passing game, particularly through short routes underneath Michigan’s zones. Some of that has been out of necessity — the existence of senior edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson makes long-developing pass plays nearly impossible — but at moments, it’s also genuinely worked.
Western Michigan, for example, scored on its first drive at least partially because it was successful throwing short outs. The Wolverines managed to stop those by switching to a two-high shell, but if they aren’t stuffing the run like they were against the Broncos, that might not be an option all the time. If Rutgers can sustain drives through the short passing game, that could grow into a recipe to defeat Michigan’s defense.
Offense: Blake Corum’s Historic Pace
Sophomore running back Blake Corum has started the season at a blistering pace, racking up 407 rushing yards in three games, the third-most in the country. For reference, Derrick Henry — the last running back to win the Heisman Trophy — had just 370 yards through three games that season, in 2015.
Of course, Henry did that against much tougher opponents, and realistically, Corum probably won’t win the Heisman. Still, he’s producing at a rate that nobody expected coming into this season, and if it continues, he’ll absolutely be in the running for some national awards down the line.
The question is, will it continue? The Wolverines have had their fair share of September Heismans over the years (Jabrill Peppers and Denard Robinson, for example) that eventually fade into merely above-average seasons, and the Scarlet Knights aren’t exactly a top defensive team. Still, a fourth-straight statistically ludicrous performance would indicate that Corum isn’t just a skilled rusher off to a hot start — he could genuinely be one of the best running backs in the country.
Biggest Question: A True No. 1 Receiver
After just 44 passing yards against Washington, junior quarterback Cade McNamara showed his importance to the offense against Northern Illinois, tallying 233 yards and throwing an 87-yard touchdown bomb to junior receiver Cornelius Johnson that broke the game wide open. At this point, it looks like McNamara should be good enough to establish a consistent passing game — that is, if he has open receivers to throw to.
Since senior Ronnie Bell’s season-ending injury in Week 1, though, a clear top target hasn’t emerged. Johnson seems like the likely candidate, with six receptions, 165 yards and one touchdown, but he hasn’t yet had to fill Bell’s role against a tough defense. Once again, Rutgers shouldn’t pose too much of a challenge, but Saturday’s game should provide hints as to whether Johnson can remain consistent for in running clean routes, creating separation and catching 50/50 balls, especially.
He’s not the only candidate, either. After an injury limited his time against Western Michigan and the Wolverines barely threw the ball against Washington, senior receiver Daylen Baldwin played significant snaps against Northern Illinois, tallying three receptions for 23 yards. Though not as fast as Johnson, Baldwin brings an added element of physicality that could make him more effective on 50/50 balls. If McNamara goes deep to Baldwin more than once on Saturday, that could be a clue that his role in the offense is growing.
Rutgers probably isn’t that good. But maybe it is! This Saturday should help us find out.