ANN ARBOR, Mich. – When Daxton Hill came down with a game-winning interception in the third overtime against Rutgers, the Michigan football fan base seemed to be split into two groups: relieved and embarrassed.
My question to those in the latter group: Have you watched this team over the last three weeks?
The Michigan State, Indiana and Wisconsin games made up one of the most miserable three-week spans in program history. Michigan simply needed a win this weekend, and that’s what it got.
Was it pretty? No. Is it encouraging that in year six, Jim Harbaugh’s team needs three overtimes to beat a team that’s been the doormat of the Big Ten? Obviously not.
But none of that really matters. Every week is a new week in college football, and Michigan is going into next week on a one-game winning streak.
For all the of the dedicated pessimists out there, it’s hard to blame you. Michigan football has given fans plenty of reason to feel down about this season -- and the last 13 years, to be frank.
But if a triple overtime finish against Rutgers isn’t going to satisfy you, there are, at minimum, a few positive takeaways from Saturday (and Sunday, technically).
The most obvious takeaway for the Wolverines is that Cade McNamara is the starting quarterback going forward -- and it’s not even close.
Joe Milton wasn’t the main reason for Michigan’s struggles, but he played a bigger role than many would like to admit. Inaccuracy on deep passes kept Michigan from making big plays and allowed opponents to crowd the box and shut down the running game.
So much of Josh Gattis’ offense is designed around quarterback options, and Milton didn’t seem to make the right reads on many plays.
McNamara, on the other hand, came in and executed the offense exactly how it’s supposed to be run. He pulled the ball and hit receivers on short routes when they were open. He handed off to running backs when that was the correct read. He even had a few runs of his own, though that doesn’t appear to be a strength.
Here’s a look at Michigan’s drives with Milton in the game:
- 6 plays, 45 yards, FUMBLE
- 5 plays, 31 yards, TURNOVER ON DOWNS
- 3 plays, -2 yards, PUNT
- 10 plays, 55 yards, MISSED FIELD GOAL
- 3 plays, -11 yards, PUNT
Let’s be clear: The offense wasn’t completely dormant under Milton this weekend. He was leading a nice opening drive before Cornelius Johnson fumbled on what would have been a big gain. He also got Quinn Nordin into field position, but came away with no points. Gattis did Milton absolutely no favors with the play calling on the second drive.
But overall, Michigan averaged 5.4 plays, 23.6 yards and zero points on Milton’s five drives.
Here’s a look at Michigan’s drives in regulation once McNamara took over:
- 3 plays, 63 yards, TOUCHDOWN
- 11 plays, 48 yards, MISSED FIELD GOAL
- 8 plays, 59 yards, TOUCHDOWN
- 5 plays, 10 yards, PUNT
- 9 plays, 71 yards, TOUCHDOWN
- 12 plays, 85 yards, TOUCHDOWN
The offense only punted once in six drives, and the 11-play drive that ended in a field goal attempt very well could have been a touchdown drive if the clock didn’t run out at the end of the first half. Harbaugh’s clock management in that situation is a whole different story.
But there’s no denying the difference between these drives and the first five of the game. McNamara averaged eight plays, 56 yards and 4.67 points per drive over this span.
In overtime, another puzzling play call -- a McNamara run on third and three -- forced a field goal attempt that was again missed by Nordin. Once Rutgers failed to capitalize and McNamara got another chance, he made the most of it, scoring touchdowns in the second and third overtimes.
In the end, McNamara completed 27 of 36 passes for 260 yards and four touchdowns, while rushing for a fifth touchdown.
It’s too early to crown McNamara the savior -- even John O’Korn completed 18 of 26 passes for 270 yards in his first real action against Purdue in 2017 -- but it was encouraging to see a quarterback run the offense effectively and make accurate throws.
Now that he’s the definitive starter, McNamara’s performance against Penn State will be even more telling.
No. 1 running back
On the surface, having four legitimate options at running back seemed like a great sign for Michigan to start the season, but after the Minnesota game, it started to look like more of a logjam.
Michigan wasn’t able to get any of its running backs going because none of them had enough reps. I’m sure you heard James Laurenitis mention two, three or 10 times during the broadcast that “Michigan doesn’t think it has a running back who can carry the ball 20-25 times a game.”
That simply isn’t true.
Hassan Haskins wasn’t a borderline five-star recruit like Zach Charbonnet. He isn’t one of the fastest players on the roster like Blake Corum. Heck, he doesn’t even have the 2,000-yard college career to fall back on like Chris Evans.
But it’s pretty clear he’s Michigan’s best running back, and if Harbaugh needs him to carry the ball 25-30 times, it doesn’t look like that will be an issue.
Coaches can talk all they want about who they trust and how much they want to spread the carries during the week, but they show you what they really think of their guys when it comes time to win a close football game.
On Saturday, Michigan’s coaching staff made it crystal clear that Haskins is the one they trust most. He finished with 25 carries in the game, more than Charbonnet (six), Corum (four) and Evans (one) combined.
Haskins turned those 25 carries into 109 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers aren’t exactly eye-popping, but Haskins was a monster when Michigan needed him the most. He picked up tough first downs and kept the clock moving when Michigan drove 85 yards in 12 plays to go up eight points late in regulation.
He capped the night off by leaping into the end zone on fourth and goal from the 1-yard line, after Michigan struggled to push its way in against the Scarlet Knights.
At the start of the season, Michigan had too many running backs in the rotation. It’s pretty clear now who is No. 1.
McNamara and Haskins were excellent individually, but if the most important part of Michigan’s victory was the fight players showed coming back from a harrowing deficit.
The Wolverines haven’t showed much heart over the last three weeks. From sleepwalking through what’s supposed to be a heated rivalry game to giving up halfway through the Wisconsin blowout, Michigan has had some alarming body language during its losing streak.
It looked like that would be the case again when Michigan fell down 17-0 late in the second quarter.
Michigan had fumbled away its best drive, turned the ball over on downs, allowed three scores in four possessions and was coming off a drive of negative 11 yards.
It looked grim, especially considering how the team responded to adversity in previous matchups.
Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye weren’t coming back to save the defense. Jalen Mayfield and Ryan Hayes are still out at tackle. Andrew Vastardis, the starting center and team captain, didn’t play. Star linebacker Cam McGrone and starting safety Brad Hawkins both left the game with injuries and wouldn’t return.
Yet somehow, some way, Michigan pulled it together and mounted a comeback -- on the road, no less.
Between the life McNamara injected into the offense and a few other big plays -- especially Giles Jackson’s kickoff return touchdown -- Michigan stayed alive.
The eight-play, 59-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter was especially encouraging. Jackson had just returned the opening kickoff of the second half for a touchdown to pull within three points when the defense allowed a Rutgers touchdown just three plays later.
In past games, that might have been a back breaking moment for Michigan, but it answered with another touchdown. Then, the defense allowed just three points combined on the next three Rutgers drives.
Michigan shouldn’t need to fight back from a 17-point deficit against Rutgers, but it very well could have woken up today after a humiliating fourth-straight loss.
Instead, Michigan found a way to turn the tide and escape with a win. This team isn’t going to be on Ohio State’s level any time soon, but it’s progress. Baby steps.
The wheels looked ready to fall off for Michigan around 8:30 p.m. Saturday, but the Wolverines found a way to keep that from happening. Now they have a chance to build off that feeling of success.