ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It sounds strange to say it, but could this Rutgers game be dangerous for the No. 2 Michigan football team?
Rutgers has been the laughingstock of the Big Ten since joining the league in 2014. Admittedly, I have enjoyed piling on at times, especially whenever I could use that sad photo of Chris Ash.
Because of Rutgers’ reputation -- combined with the fact that Michigan is the No. 2 team in the country and playing at home -- nobody will think twice about this weekend’s matchup.
But... should they?
Michigan is coming off a very sloppy performance against Bowling Green, a 40-point underdog. J.J. McCarthy threw three interceptions, the Wolverines fumbled two kickoffs, and the entire team seemed out of sync.
Honestly, I think Michigan was just bored of playing five-touchdown underdogs, but my concern about the Rutgers game is less about what happened on Saturday night and more about what’s happened the last two years.
Struggles in first Big Ten game
In 2021, Michigan hosted Rutgers in almost this exact same scenario. The Wolverines had blown out Western Michigan, Washington, and Northern Illinois in the non-conference, and Rutgers came to town on Sept. 25.
That game did not go as Michigan expected. The Scarlet Knights out-gained the Wolverines by 77 yards and had the ball down seven points in the final minutes. There was a very real chance that Rutgers could have scored and tried a two-point conversion to win that game.
Last season, en route to a second-straight Big Ten championship, Michigan’s toughest home game was once again the first of conference play.
Maryland came to town on Sept. 24 after Michigan dismantled Colorado State, Hawaii, and Connecticut in the non-conference. Michigan came into the game as a 17-point favorite, but Maryland carried a lead into the second quarter. With nine minutes left in the fourth, the Terrapins scored again to pull within five.
Much like the previous season against Rutgers, Michigan found a way to survive. But it wasn’t at all comfortable.
On Saturday, the situation will be nearly identical to the previous two years. Michigan steamrolled all three non-conference opponents and is hosting a massive underdog at the Big House for the final game of September.
Pesky Rutgers performances
Greg Schiano has given Michigan trouble since returning to Rutgers, and it wasn’t just that close call in 2021.
Last season, the Scarlet Knights held a 17-14 lead over Michigan at halftime before they were doomed by a pair of Gavin Wimsatt interceptions. Michigan mostly controlled the pace all the way through, but a blocked punt touchdown kept Rutgers in it for awhile.
That’s kind of what Schiano teams do: They find a way to compete, even when they’re outmanned.
Rutgers this season
Rutgers has actually been much better than expected so far this year. In all three games, the Scarlet Knights have been favored by fewer than eight points, and all three times, they won by three scores.
So far, Northwestern, Temple, and Virginia Tech have managed to score just 30 combined points against the Rutgers defense. McCarthy and the Michigan offense will have to do a much better job taking care of the ball.
Wimsatt is still a bit inconsistent as a passer, completing just 51% of his attempts for an average of 6.2 yards through three games. But he’s yet to throw an interception, and he’s more willing to run this season (144 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries).
The Wolverines will come into the game determined to bounce back from Saturday’s performance, especially with Jim Harbaugh returning to the sideline. I’m sure Rutgers has their full attention, but history suggests this could be one of Michigan’s most dangerous games.