ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan overcame a strange series of first-half plays Saturday to dominate Rutgers and survive what ended up being a wacky weekend of college football.
The Wolverines didn’t look like themselves for the first 30 minutes in Piscataway. For starters, one of the best special teams units in the country allowed a blocked punt for a touchdown and saw All-American kicker Jake Moody miss a pair of field goals.
An illegal formation penalty wiped out one Blake Corum touchdown, while J.J. McCarthy -- who came in as the most accurate passer in the nation -- missed a wide open Andrel Anthony to erase another.
It was an uncharacteristic first half for Michigan, but still, the deficit was only three points heading into the locker room.
The third quarter immediately silenced what had become a fairly raucous Rutgers crowd. An opening drive that totaled negative-one yard for Rutgers gave way to a touchdown-interception-touchdown-pick-six sequence that put Michigan up 18 points in the blink of an eye.
The defense overpowered the Scarlet Knights in the fourth quarter to pave the way for a 38-0 second half. In the end, Michigan didn’t just win the game, it comfortably covered the 26-point spread.
Jim Harbaugh’s team improved to 9-0 on the season -- one of just four unbeatens remaining. The Wolverines will gladly take a 35-point win in which they out-gained their opponent 433-180 in yardage -- especially during a weekend that ended up being very costly for other College Football Playoff contenders.
Two of the era’s most dominant programs highlighted a crazy Saturday night.
Alabama picked up its second loss of the season after LSU converted a two-point conversion while trailing by one in overtime. The Crimson Tide have been to seven of the eight playoffs all-time, but this year, even a trip to the SEC Championship Game looks nearly impossible.
Meanwhile, undefeated Clemson went to South Bend and got rocked by a Notre Dame team that has already dropped games against Marshall and Stanford in that very same stadium. Clemson still has the inside track to win the ACC, but a 21-point loss to an unranked team might be difficult to overcome.
The No. 1 team in the nation, Tennessee, went to Georgia and got schooled by the defending champs, needing a garbage time touchdown to lose 27-13. Tennessee is still very much alive in the playoff race, but no longer controls its own destiny.
Tennessee, Alabama, and Clemson: That’s three of the College Football Playoff committee’s top six teams falling on the same night -- two of them in blowout fashion.
When you think about how those fan bases are feeling this week, beating a 4-4 team by five touchdowns on the road doesn’t sound so bad.
Six other teams in the top 25 also lost this weekend: No. 13 Kansas State, No. 16 Illinois, No. 18 Oklahoma State, No. 20 Syracuse, No. 21 Wake Forest, and No. 23 Oregon State.
For the Fighting Illini, a home loss to Michigan State officially put their long-shot playoff hopes to rest. Before the weekend, we talked about the 13 teams left in contention (read that here). Now, that list has been trimmed to 11 (removing Illinois and Alabama).
Among the 15 ranked teams that won Saturday, Michigan’s struggles were by no means the most glaring. Ohio State got out-gained by Northwestern. TCU trailed Texas Tech late in the third quarter. USC gave up over 400 passing yards and almost blew a huge lead against Cal.
All-in-all, it was a day that left blemishes on the resumes of several contenders. And despite a sloppy first half, Michigan was not one of them.
The Wolverines are widely expected to be among the top three in Tuesday’s new College Football Playoff poll. With Alabama dropping out of the race, Clemson taking a hit, and several others on life support, that’s a pretty good place to be.