Michigan football’s Jim Harbaugh speaks to the media on Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, in Ann Arbor.
Nick Baumgardner, Freep
No. 4 Michigan Wolverines at Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m., Saturday, HighPoint.com Stadium; Piscataway, N.J.
TV/radio: Big Ten Network; WWJ-AM (950), WTKA-AM (1050).
Line: Wolverines by 39
Out: P Brad Robbins, DB Benjamin St-Juste, DE Luiji Vilain, QB Dylan McCaffrey.
Out: TE Blessuan Austin. Questionable: TE Jerome Washington
When Michigan has the ball: For the Wolverines, Saturday will likely be a ground and pound situation with the hope of not allowing quarterback Shea Patterson to take many unnecessary hits on his body. Rutgers’ rush defense is one of the worst in America. The Knights are giving up 234.3 yards per game on the ground at 5.6 yards per attempt. This team has been unable to establish a line of scrimmage against most everyone it’s face and, what’s more, small gashes turn into chunks easily. Rutgers ranks No. 126 nationally in runs of 20 yards or more allowed with 27 (nearly three per game). The tackling is poor, the gap discipline is poor. The raw numbers against the pass look solid (180.4), but mostly because teams attack with the run. The Knights have given up 15 passing touchdowns vs. four interceptions. Teams are completing nearly 60 percent of their throws. This defense is better than it was in the 78-0 game two years ago, but the impact plays come from guys like freshman Mike Tverdov and sophomore Elorm Lumor, both defensive linemen. Michigan’s goal: Pound the ball.
When Rutgers has the ball: Artur Sitkowski is the quarterback of the present and the future for Rutgers. But he’s a true freshman pocket passer, which isn’t the greatest recipe for this team right now. The Knights have been better at protecting the passer this season, but anything that’s rushed has turned into a problem for Sitkowski, who has completed fewer than 50 percent of his throws. He also has four touchdown passes against 15 interceptions. Sophomore running back Raheem Blackshear is the leading rusher (437 yards) and leading receiver (316 yards). This is as conservative an offense as you’ll see. Zero explosion. Rutgers ranks dead last nationally in total plays from scrimmage of 20 yards or more at just 18. Most everything is a struggle.
Know the foe
Chris Ash agreed to take hold of one of the country’s most challenging jobs back in 2016 and nothing’s gotten easier. New Jersey is still fertile and still ransacked by power programs everywhere but inside the state. The talent level just hasn’t been there. The 2016 recruiting class ranked No. 12 in the Big Ten, the 2017 group was No. 9 and the 2018 group was No. 13. Rutgers has had an uphill battle since entering the Big Ten. And so far, little has changed.
Sitkowski could possibly turn into something, over time, for the Knights. The New Jersey native was a 3-star prospect who had 27 offers, including early interest from Michigan when Jedd Fisch was with the program. He’s a talented prospect who is currently working from behind with a group of young players. Wide receiver Bo Melton has talent, as does Blackshear. In time, if Rutgers can keep him upright, Sitkowski could be something for this program to hang its hat on. Though it’s tough to see right now.
Ash went winless in Big Ten play back in 2016 but rebounded a bit with a 4-8 season and a 3-6 league record last year. So far in 2018, he’s winless in six league games and has just one victory overall. The talent deficit is massive. Rutgers has been close twice: A seven-point loss vs. Indiana and a three-point home collapse against Northwestern. Everything else in Big Ten play has been a sound beating.
Protection hammer: For Michigan, this game’s about two things: Treating Rutgers like Rutgers and leaving New Jersey with a clean bill of health. The Wolverines don’t need to take chances in this game with Patterson, they don’t need to show anything that’s not already on tape. This is a base football game. Let the offensive line do its thing, pound the football and get work for new backup quarterbacks Brandon Peters and, if needed, Joe Milton. Michigan hasn’t had the look of a team primed for a letdown this season, though injuries can slow down a playoff drive. Health is the top goal here.
The fronts: Michigan’s defensive line should completely control this football game. Rutgers has no answer, physically, for what the Wolverines can throw at it in the front seven. The Knights have some defensive linemen who are capable of making a play or two, but barring a rash of turnovers or inexplicable miscues, Michigan should be able to power through this without too much trouble.
Rutgers isn’t as bad as it was in 2016, though it’s not as good as it was a year ago at 4-8. This is the worst team in the Big Ten in nearly every area. If Michigan’s focus is where it should be, this thing should be over in the third quarter.
Pick: Michigan 45, Rutgers 7
Contact Nick Baumgardner: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickbaumgardner.