Free Press sports writers Orion Sang and Rainer Sabin break down
Sang: “Michigan football could lose to Rutgers.” If you told people that before the season, they would’ve laughed at you. But we’re in Week 5 now, and the possibility of the Wolverines losing to the Big Ten’s doormat is very, very real. Michigan is 1-3, riding a three-game losing streak, and has lost by a wider margin with each passing week. Let’s break down how this all happened — and why the Wolverines have a seemingly difficult matchup this week at Rutgers.
Sabin: The Vegas oddsmakers still favor Michigan in this matchup, but I think it will be closer than the line would suggest. The Wolverines have a confidence issue that extends from the coaches to the players. That’s reflected in the quarterback situation, which appears up in the air at this point. The fact that Michigan is contemplating a change at such an important position during the midpoint of the season indicates that the Wolverines are searching for answers.
Sang: Yeah, I think the lack of confidence is a huge issue. Michigan has not led in the past three weeks and has given up the first touchdown in all four games this season. So the Wolverines are getting hit in the mouth at the start of every game — and the response has been lackluster. Last week’s game was the worst, as Michigan looked lethargic in falling behind 28-0 in the first half. This already isn’t the most talented or experienced team — so it’s an issue when the Wolverines start out slow and play tentatively.
Sabin: True. And it seems to be a struggle for Michigan in all aspects. The offense keeps getting behind schedule and finding itself in unfavorable down-and-distance situations. The defense is hemorrhaging yards on the ground and through the air — depending on how the opponent chooses to attack the Wolverines. And it doesn’t seem Michigan is capable of scheming its way out of these problems because ultimately it’s a talent issue. This is clearly the worst roster Michigan has had during Jim Harbaugh’s tenure.
Sang: And that last part shouldn’t be too much of a surprise — the Wolverines were near the bottom of the nation in returning production, and that was before Nico Collins and Ambry Thomas opted out. Add in injuries to Kwity Paye, Aidan Hutchinson and Jalen Mayfield, and you could argue that Michigan has played much of this season without its five best players. Of course, the Wolverines have still recruited better than Wisconsin and Indiana, both of whom blew them out in consecutive weeks, so this seems like a development and inexperience problem — in addition to not having the same level of talent as previous years.
Sabin: Interestingly, this game could have recruiting implications. Michigan has veered away from New Jersey in this last cycle, in part, because former assistants Chris Partridge and Anthony Campanile left the staff this offseason. A victory by Rutgers could potentially hurt Michigan’s ability to re-enter the mix in New Jersey, which new/old coach Greg Schiano is trying to lock down. A victory over the Wolverines would signal to prospects in that state that the Scarlet Knights have closed the gap between the two programs, which was as wide as ever only a few years ago.
Sang: Let’s take a look at how Michigan might win this game. The big question is who the Wolverines will start under center — but regardless of whether it’s Joe Milton or Cade McNamara, I think the offense could do more to help out the quarterback. Milton has faced countless second- and third-and-longs this season. I think a successful game-plan for the Wolverines starts with re-establishing the run game and staying ahead of schedule during early downs. And defensively — I think the easiest way to put it would be like this: Michigan just needs to play better, from avoiding costly penalties, getting pressure, defending the run and covering receivers.
Sabin: Jim Harbaugh said everything was on the table this week. And I think they need to take a hard look at how they deploy the running backs. A committee of four seems excessive. I wonder if the Wolverines will streamline the ground game in that aspect. I also could see offensive coordinator Josh Gattis giving his quarterback — whomever it may be — some rhythm throws to start the game. I think one of the recurring problems is that Milton has been forced to make too many challenging passes in the early stages of games, and that goes back to the fact that they are behind schedule and having to cover a lot of ground on third downs.
Sang: If Michigan does win, I think it’ll be closer than the betting line indicates — and much closer than anyone would’ve thought before the season. And that seems like a pretty accurate summation of where this program is right now: It needs to beat Rutgers, yet it’s no guarantee that will happen.
Sabin: I agree. The fact remains that opponents get up to play Michigan, even when Michigan is down. So, expect Rutgers to play at an optimal level. And the Wolverines are not good enough to just show up in Piscataway and get a victory. This figures to be a close game.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Breaking down Michigan football’s game at Rutgers