ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan football stayed undefeated this weekend with an impressive win over previously unbeaten Rutgers.
The Wolverines got off to a bit of a slow start, but in the end, they posted their fourth-straight win by more than 20 points and out-gained Rutgers by over 150 total yards.
Here’s what I took away from the game:
Positive: Michigan rush defense
For the fourth game in a row, Michigan’s first-string defense was nearly perfect, allowing just one 69-yard touchdown on the opening drive and slamming the door for the next 59 minutes of game time.
Take out the final play before halftime -- when Rutgers purposely took a seven-yard loss to run out the clock -- and the Scarlet Knights carried the football 22 times for 84 yards. That’s an average of 3.8 yards per carry.
It wasn’t a flashy performance, as Michigan went without a sack and only registered three tackles for loss. But Rutgers is a team that wants to run the football, and the Wolverines took that away for most of the afternoon.
The front seven was particularly impressive in short-yardage situations. Rutgers went 0-3 on fourth down and 3-10 on third down. By winning those pivotal plays, the defense gave the offense time to create separation in what was once a competitive game.
Negative: Big passing plays
If there’s one area to nitpick the defense, it’s the tendency to give up chunk plays in the passing game.
This issue popped up in the first quarter of the Bowling Green game, when Camden Orth hit Odieu Hiliare for a 30-yard gain on the very first play. On the second drive, Orth hit Abdul-Fatai Ibrahim for a 33-yard gain and Levi Gazarek for a 15-yard gain on 3rd and 15 (an obvious passing situation).
That trend continued Saturday. First, it was Rod Moore whiffing on a short slant route that allowed Christian Dremel to scamper 69 yards for a touchdown. Later, Gavin Wimsatt completed passes of 20, 18, and 17 yards.
Let’s face it: Wimsatt isn’t one of the better passers Michigan will face this season. He has a career completion rate of 47% and averages about 5.5 yards per attempt.
Cornerback was the biggest question mark for Michigan coming into this season, and even though all four games have been dominant wins, I wonder how the secondary will hold up against more prolific quarterbacks like Drew Allar and Taulia Tagovailoa.
Positive: 2022 flashback
It’s amazing how fast the script flipped in Saturday’s game -- and in an eerily similar way to last year’s Michigan-Rutgers matchup.
Last season in Piscataway, Rutgers went into halftime with a 17-14 lead over Michigan. The Wolverines took the lead back after the break, and then, it was a pair of Wimsatt interceptions that turned it into a blowout.
Both of those interceptions went to fifth-year senior Michael Barrett, and the second one was returned for a touchdown that effectively ended the game in the third quarter.
Well, that’s pretty similar to what happened on Saturday. Rutgers was down just 17-7 and driving deep into Michigan territory when Wimsatt threw the ball to another fifth-year senior wearing the Maize and Blue.
Mike Sainristil returned the ball 71 yards for a touchdown, and that was the moment everyone knew the game was over.
If Rutgers had converted that 4th and 2, it would have been in great position to pull within one score. Instead, in the blink of an eye, Michigan was up 17 points and en route to 4-0.
Negative: Solid, but not elite, offensive line play
Before everyone gets all defensive, let’s get this out of the way: Michigan still has a solid offensive line. There are more than a handful of NFL prospects in the rotation, and most teams in the country would love to have even a couple.
But I think we’ve seen enough to say it’s not nearly as dominant as the last two seasons.
Michigan simply isn’t imposing its will on opponents like it could in the past. Last season, with the same pair of running backs, the Wolverines averaged 5.6 yards per carry. So far, in four games against only weaker competition, this team is averaging just 5 yards per carry.
For proof, look no further than the performance of Donovan Edwards. He’s been a major factor in the receiving game, but who would have thought after 33 carries his longest run would be just 14 yards? This is a guy who ripped off two 70-yard scores in Columbus a year ago.
Blake Corum is as dominant as ever, but overall, Michigan’s running game isn’t the immovable force it was in 2021 and 2022. That starts up front, and it means more responsibility will fall at the feet of J.J. McCarthy.
Positive: Dual-threat McCarthy
Speaking of which, McCarthy had a nice bounce-back performance Saturday after his three-interception game against Bowling Green.
He still wasn’t quite as sharp as the first two weeks through the air, but McCarthy finally broke out the other weapon in his arsenal: the running game.
McCarthy carried the ball five times for gains of 16, 22, 9, 5, and 8 yards. His 9-yard run came on a 4th and 1, and the 5-yard run came on 3rd and 5. Clearly, Michigan is willing to use McCarthy’s legs in even the most critical moments.
It might not seem like much, but the threat of McCarthy keeping the football will take some pressure off the conventional running game and also open up options through the air. The more weapons at Michigan’s disposal, the better, and it’s good to see this one in action for the first time.
Negative: Special teams miscues
One of the most frustrating parts of Jim Harbaugh’s return had to be a few key errors on special teams. Harbaugh has always emphasized the importance of special teams, and he couldn’t have been happy to see some of the lapses in that department.
The most obvious came early in the second quarter, when a long drive stalled in the red zone and resulted in a 37-yard field goal attempt. James Turner banged it through the uprights without a problem, but it turns out Michigan didn’t get the snap off in time.
That unforced error pushed the attempt back to a 42-yarder, and Turner missed. At the time, the game was tied, so this felt like a costly mistake. If it happens against Penn State or Ohio State, it will be.
A more subtle mistake came on Rutgers’ first punt of the game. Michigan’s defense force a three-and-out at Rutgers’ own 19-yard line, and it looked like the offense was going to have great field position.
But Flynn Appleby rolled out for a rugby-style punt and blasted a low line drive toward the corner. Instead of stepping up and catching the punt, Jake Thaw hesitated, and then was forced to get out of the way and let the ball bounce. Michigan ended up starting the ensuing drive from its own 6-yard line (a 75-yard punt).
Ironically, McCarthy and the offense marched 94 yards down the field and scored anyway, so nobody will even remember what happened. But Michigan needs to be much better in the punt return game -- it shouldn’t be so easy to flip the field.
Positive: Protecting the football
I’m sure ball security was a major emphasis in practice this week after Michigan gave away three interceptions and fumbled during two kick returns against Bowling Green.
Saturday looked much, much better. Michigan never put the ball on the ground, and McCarthy threw 21 passes without any close calls.
Michigan will have a more talented team than most of its opponents this season, but turnovers are the greatest equalizer in the sport. As long as the Wolverines take care of the ball, it’s going to be much harder for some of the lesser Big Ten teams to pull an upset.
Question: Is Michigan’s pass rush just average?
As good as the defense was against the run this week, Michigan once again went without a sack.
Playing without Mason Graham definitely affected Michigan’s ability to get pressure -- he’s one of the most dominant interior defensive linemen in the country and takes attention off of the edge rushers.
Maybe the coaching staff isn’t worried about pressuring the quarterback in these early games. It sure seems like a group that includes Jaylen Harrell, Kris Jenkins, Derrick Moore, Kenneth Grant, and Mason Graham should be living in opposing backfields.
We’ll see if the pressure ramps up as Michigan hits the road the next two weeks.
Question: How long until secondary gets back up to speed?
Will Johnson and Rod Moore were back on the field full-time Saturday, but it’s going to take them and the entire unit some time to get fully integrated.
There were signs of rust this weekend, most notably for Moore. Since most of this group played together last season, will they acclimate quickly over the next few weeks? I would expect that answer to be yes.