When Michigan rolled to a 3-0 record to open its season, it did so in impressive fashion. Through three games, the Wolverines never trailed and were barely challenged, outscoring their non-conference opponents 141-30. Yet despite Michigan’s hot start, there were concerns.
That’s because while Michigan displayed a strong running game (stronger than expected, in fact) it hadn’t shown much in the way of a passing attack. Michigan dominated on the ground - rushing for more than 350 yards a game at a gaudy 7.1 yards per carry clip - but did little through the air. In its 31-10 victory over Washington, Michigan and quarterback Cade McNamara completed just seven of 15 passes for 44 yards - 33 of which came on one play. Take away that play and McNamara threw for a grand total of 11 yards on the evening.
Yes, Michigan was running at will, often in dominant fashion, but could it pass when necessary? If future opponents were able to shut down the run, as would surely be the case, how would Michigan respond? If last Saturday’s game against Rutgers is any indication, not very well.
Things started out well enough for Michigan against Rutgers, as the Wolverines opened the game with a pair of 70+ yard touchdown drives, with most of the damage coming on the ground. With an early 14-3 lead, it looked like it would be another stress-free afternoon for head coach Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines.
That proved not to be the case, however.
Michigan wouldn’t reach the end zone again and Rutgers spent the rest of the afternoon chipping away at the Wolverines’ lead. Michigan ultimately held on for a 20-13 victory, but it wasn’t easy - nor was it especially pretty.
Michigan prevailed largely because of a gritty performance by its defense. With an offense that failed to get much going in the second half, Michigan’s defense was barely afforded the chance to rest. Yet while Rutgers dominated the game’s final 30 minutes, the Wolverines held the Scarlet Knights to just ten points, sealing the victory in the game’s final minutes when Michigan’s David Ojabo forced a fumble that was recovered by teammate Junior Colson.
One of new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s goals this season was to put Michigan’s defensive playmakers in positions to make plays. It’s something at which he has so far succeeded. Aidan Hutchinson and Daxton Hill in particular have thrived in Macdonald’s system, and that was the case again Saturday. Hutchinson was especially active.
Hutchinson and Hill have stood out all season, but Saturday’s game also underscored the importance of senior linebacker Josh Ross. With Ross sitting out the second half (with an apparent injury) and not directing the action, the Wolverines struggled with Rutgers’ sleight-of-hand offense. Ross’s injury isn’t believed to be serious, however, and he’s expected back in action this weekend.
But while the Wolverines ultimately prevailed, running their record to 4-0 in the process, the game only amplified concerns about their offense.
If there was a play that symbolized the day, it was one that occurred in the opening minutes of the second half. Facing a third-and-12 in Rutgers territory, Harbaugh and the Wolverines conceded the first down and instead opted to run into a stacked box. It was a play that had little chance of success and set the tone for the rest of the half - a half in which Michigan showed little interest in doing anything other than running out the clock. For the half, the Wolverines gained a paltry 42 yards on 21 plays and picked up just two first downs in the process. It was as anemic a half of football as Michigan has played since … I can’t remember.
Rutgers’s defensive strategy was fairly straightforward: Having no fear of Michigan’s passing attack, the Scarlet Knights crowded the line of scrimmage, selling out to defend the run. Yet despite having little-to-no success rushing, Michigan showed little inclination to do anything other than pound the ball fruitlessly into the teeth of the Rutgers’ defense.
In not adjusting to Rutgers’ defensive scheme - and not trying to take advantage of a vulnerable secondary - Michigan showed how little faith it has in its passing game. Michigan rarely dialed up passes, and when it did, they were of the low-risk, low-reward variety. Despite assurances to the contrary, Michigan’s coaches haven’t yet shown that they have the confidence to put the game in McNamara’s hands - or if you prefer - they haven’t shown that they have the confidence to let McNamara get the ball into the hands of his receivers.
Harbaugh has said that Michigan celebrates every victory, and it should. Rutgers is a much-improved team under Greg Schiano and the Scarlet Knights played well Saturday, giving the Wolverines all they could handle. But celebrating a victory is one thing and being satisfied with a performance is another. Saturday’s game should serve as a wakeup call for Harbaugh and the Wolverines - a call they would be wise to heed, because playing things so closely to the vest may have (barely) worked against Rutgers, but it won’t against some of the stouter defenses that are awaiting Michigan.
And Michigan will face the first of those defenses this weekend, when the Wolverines play Wisconsin in Madison - a place the Wolverines haven’t won in two decades. After being embarrassed by Notre Dame last week, expect Wisconsin to regroup and bring its A-Game this weekend. The question is: What kind of game will Michigan bring?