ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan football team badly need a win this weekend. Their opponent: A team they’ve beaten by a combined 219 points over the last five years.
When Michigan and Rutgers meet, everyone thinks about the 78-0 thrashing in 2016. In reality, none of the last five games have been competitive. The combined score between these two teams since Harbaugh got to Ann Arbor is 256-37 in favor of the Wolverines.
This year feels a little different, though. Rutgers has a competent coaching staff led by Greg Schiano and has already proven to be more competitive than in seasons past.
Although they were gifted seven turnovers, the Scarlet Knights shocked Michigan State in the opener and have since played somewhat competitive games against Indiana, Ohio State and Illinois.
That’s more than Rutgers could say during the Chris Ash era.
Michigan, meanwhile, is in the exact same boat: a win in the opener and three losses since -- including two blowouts. The Wolverines are playing their third prime time night game in five weeks and hoping to avoid another letdown.
Rutgers is hungry for some revenge against Michigan, not only because of the lopsided past scores, but also because Harbaugh has turned New Jersey into something of a Michigan recruiting pipeline. The current Rutgers roster is built by transfer players, but Schiano wants to get to a place where he can recruit his own backyard.
Beating Michigan would go a long way toward that.
Michigan’s defense won’t have to play against Michael Penix or Graham Mertz this weekend, but that doesn’t guarantee success. Rocky Lombardi threw all over Don Brown’s secondary three weeks ago, and he hasn’t looked the same against any other defense.
Noah Vedral is completing 63.1% of his pass attempts, but only for 5.6 yards per throw. He’s also been picked off seven times, compared to just five touchdown passes.
Saturday is a chance for Vedral to bounce back against one of the worst secondaries in the Big Ten. Likewise, Michigan’s cornerbacks will look to pick on a turnover-prone quarterback.
It’s a classic case of weakness vs. weakness. Which side can finally find some success?
On offense, nobody knows whether Michigan will still be led by Joe Milton or if Cade McNamara will get his chance to start under center. Milton struggled again vs. Wisconsin, and McNamara came in to lead Michigan’s only touchdown drive.
Despite the three-game losing streak, Michigan has managed to maintain its momentum on the recruiting trail and keep a top 10 class together for 2021. A loss to Rutgers would really test the strength of those commitments, though -- a risk Michigan would rather not take.
More than anything, Michigan just needs something positive to happen. It hasn’t had a lead since the Minnesota game ended, and playing from behind is taxing for a team that’s been worn down by adversity.
Winning cures all ailments, and Michigan desperately needs to be healed from whatever’s been going on. Even a win over Rutgers would feel incredible for the Maize and Blue.
This should be the most competitive meeting between the two teams since 2014, but I think Michigan will come out on top, 32-24.