ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It’s been more than a month since Michigan football took the field against an unranked team, but it will do so this weekend when it travels to Rutgers.
The Wolverines haven’t lost since the opener Sept. 1, and that’s also the last time Rutgers experienced a win. While Michigan was ripping off eight straight wins to climb to No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings, Rutgers fell to 1-8 with several embarrassing losses.
Here are eight realistic goals for Michigan heading into the matchup.
1. Win convincingly
With so many one-loss teams fighting for the No. 4 spot in the College Football Playoff, it’s not good enough for Michigan to simply beat Rutgers. This is the worst team on Michigan’s schedule, and it needs to be dominant.
The Wolverines are favored by more than five touchdowns, and it will be important to win by multiple scores, as Georgia, Oklahoma and West Virginia are eager to see Michigan slip up.
It doesn’t need to be another 78-0 drubbing like Michigan’s last trip to Piscataway, but Jim Harbaugh knows he can’t let Rutgers stay within single digits.
2. Shut out Rutgers offense
Michigan has the No. 1 total defense in the country by a wide margin, and Rutgers will be the worst offensive team it sees all season.
Artur Sitkowski has thrown 15 interceptions to go with four touchdown passes, and no team in the country averages fewer points per game than Rutgers.
The Wolverines have just missed shutouts on three occasions, and this is by far their best chance.
Chris Ash’s team has allowed the second-fewest sacks in the Big Ten, so it will be a challenge for Chase Winovich, Josh Uche and company to get to Sitkowski. But with the No. 1 overall pass defense and linebackers who can outrun ball carriers to the sideline, Michigan has a good chance to stifle the Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers hasn’t been shut out this season, but it has scored fewer than 20 points in all eight of its losses.
3. Rashan Gary — sack
Michigan fans were elated to see star defensive lineman Rashan Gary back on the field against Penn State after he missed three games with a shoulder injury.
Despite being projected as a first-round pick, Gary said he never considered shutting it down for the rest of the year. On his first series back on the field, he delivered a huge blow to Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley.
Gary is returning to his home state for the battle with Rutgers, and it would be huge for him to have a big game in front of his family and friends, especially coming off an injury.
4. Tarik Black — touchdown
The other player who returned after a long absence last week was Tarik Black, who appeared in the Michigan State game but never actually played an official snap.
Black figured to be Michigan’s No. 1 receiver heading into the season but injured his foot right before the opener at Notre Dame. He hasn’t caught a pass since Sept. 16, 2017, against Air Force.
Patterson hit Black for a touchdown against Penn State, but it was called back due to a penalty. Harbaugh would love to get Black a couple of catches and a touchdown against Rutgers to get him back in the mix on offense.
Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Zach Gentry have already developed a strong connection with Patterson, and if Black gets added to the mix, Michigan’s offense will continue to improve dramatically.
5. Get Shea Patterson out early
Last weekend was almost perfect for Michigan, as it stomped Penn State in front of dozens of recruits and set itself up for a playoff run down the stretch. The only downside was a late-game injury to Dylan McCaffrey, who will likely miss the rest of the season with a broken collarbone.
Michigan fans know how important the backup quarterback can be to a team, as the 2017 season was completely derailed when Wilton Speight went down with an injury and John O’Korn struggled with turnovers.
The quarterback situation was completely stable with Patterson and McCaffrey playing well, but now, an injury to Patterson would be disastrous.
Michigan has a chance to run up the score against Rutgers, and if it can build a big lead, it can get Patterson out of the game and take away the risk of injury. It would also give more repetitions to Brandon Peters or Joe Milton, whoever wins the now-open backup spot.
Patterson’s health is vital to Michigan’s championship hopes, and it will be an added bonus if Harbaugh can get some extra work for Peters or Milton.
6. Karan Higdon — 37 rushing yards
Michigan’s senior running back fell 6 yards short of 1,000 last season, but he’ll blow past that number this year, barring injury.
Karan Higdon already has 963 yards through eight games — he didn’t play against SMU — and needs just 37 more to become the first Michigan running back to go over 1,000 yards since Fitzgerald Toussaint in 2011.
Higdon will also look to go over 100 yards for the eighth game in a row.
Nobody is talking about Higdon in terms of national awards, but he should certainly be in the mix. He rushed for 158 yards and two touchdowns against Rutgers last season and 108 yards and two touchdowns in 2016. If he can post a huge number this weekend, he might start getting more recognition.
7. Quinn Nordin — perfect on field goals
The Michigan offense doesn’t want to be settling for field goals, especially against Rutgers. But it might be a long-term benefit to get Quinn Nordin a couple of chances in low-pressure situations.
Nordin has missed four kicks in his last three games and already has as many missed field goals as last season in eight fewer attempts.
Michigan has relied on Nordin’s strong leg in the past when drives stall deep in opponents’ territory, but this year, Harbaugh has been forced to punt or leave the offense on the field for fourth-down scenarios because the field goal unit has struggled.
Nordin could play a critical role for Michigan in Columbus later this month and in the postseason, so he needs to get right. The Rutgers game is a perfect opportunity to get back on track against a team Michigan should be able to handle.
8. Build on success in return game
Michigan has been average in kick and punt returns this season, but there was improvement against Penn State.
Ambry Thomas, who hasn’t made an impact in the return game since a touchdown against Notre Dame, had a nice return for 27 yards before it was called back for a holding call.
He has potential to be a dangerous kick returner, but he likely won’t get many chances this weekend. When he does have a chance to run back a kick, he needs to take advantage.
Peoples-Jones has been excellent at times in the punt return game, but Michigan ranks just 45th in the nation, with 10.68 yards per attempt.
Peoples-Jones’ elusiveness was on display against Penn State as he returned two punts for 28 and 26 yards, setting up the Michigan offense at the Penn State 38-yard line and the Michigan 47-yard line.
If the Wolverines play with that type of field position, they’ll be running downhill the entire game.
Copyright 2018 by WDIV ClickOnDetroit – All rights reserved.