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Michigan Wolverines Football Keys To The Game: Rutgers

Michigan’s three-game conference gauntlet has ended with U-M emerging unscathed and in control of its Big Ten — and likely College Football Playoff — destiny.

The new challenge? Trying to stay focused and get up for teams that are nowhere near the caliber of opponent U-M faced over the last month (though Michigan State’s offense has looked Rutgers-esque at times).

Defensive line coach Greg Mattison said Wednesday he was impressed with the way the defense attacked the most recent practice, coming out with the same intensity it’s had for the last several weeks. That’s a sign of a mature team with good leadership, but the ultimate proof will come Saturday in Piscataway, N.J.

The Wolverines enter as a whopping 39-point favorite over the Scarlet Knights, and it might go down as the biggest upset in Big Ten history should the Wolverines lose. Here are some keys for Saturday’s game:

Run the ball, and run it some more. Just don’t do it much with junior quarterback Shea Patterson. With backup Dylan McCaffrey sidelined with a broken collarbone, depth under center is now an issue. Redshirt sophomore Brandon Peters has experience, but he was a distant third on the depth chart for a reason. Freshman Joe Milton is going to be outstanding, but he’s not ready yet.

Rutgers ranks 120th nationally (out of 129 teams) in rushing yardage allowed per game (234.3). The Scarlet Knights give up 5.64 yards per carry, and teams convert third downs against them at a very high clip (46.3 percent — that’s 115th in the country), likely because they’re facing many third-and-shorts from running so well on first and second down.

This is the game to score early, avoid quarterback keepers, get senior Karan Higdon his 100 yards and then give other guys opportunities. Anything less would be disappointing.

Win the early downs on offense and make freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski throw: Rutgers has decent running backs — three of them are averaging over four yards per carry, led by Raheem Blackshear’s 437 yards and Isaih Pacheco’s 4.7 yards per rush — but Sitkowski is no threat to run, having scrambled only 18 times this year. He’s also a turnover machine, having thrown 15 interceptions against only four touchdowns.

This is a nightmare matchup for the Scarlet Knights. Mobile quarterbacks like Penn State’s Trace McSorley and Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke could at least move if the pocket broke down. Sitkowski will likely be a sitting duck in third-and-long situations.

If Michigan stops the run early, the Wolverines will have him right where they want him.

Start strong and avoid mistakes and big plays on special teams: Chances are Rutgers is going to get a lot of opportunity in the kick return game. This is one of the areas in which the Scarlet Knights aren’t awful, averaging 19.5 yards per return.

There are a few ways to let an overmatched team hang around — turnovers, big returns, and giving them hope and keeping them motivated by starting slowly. If the Wolverines protect the ball, don’t give up the big special teams play and get up early, this one should be a laugher.

The Breakdown: It’s hard to put lipstick on the pig that is Rutgers football, scarlet or any other color. Chris Ash’s team is overmatched in every area, to the point that Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh had to come up with “kick coverage” as one area in which the Scarlet Knights have excelled this year.

This shouldn’t be a game by halftime, probably earlier. Senior Editor Chris Balas: Michigan 48, Rutgers 0

It’s a win for the Scarlet Knights if they score. Some might say the same if they even cross midfield this game. Senior Editor John Borton: Michigan 55, Rutgers 6

Michigan isn’t Texas State. Recruiting Editor Brandon Brown: TBA Staff Writer Austin Fox: Michigan 63, Rutgers 3

This game probably won’t be as bad as the 78-0 blowout two years ago, but it’s going to get ugly either way — it should be over midway through the second quarter (or sooner). Staff Writer Andrew Hussey: Michigan 49, Rutgers 0

No need for revenge, Michigan rolls. Columnist Drew Hallett: Michigan 50, Rutgers 0

The only question is whether Rutgers scores zero points. Staff Writer Adam Ghabour: TBA Analyst Doug Skene: Michigan 56, Rutgers 3

If Michigan is the team I think it is, the game will be over by the end of the first quarter.

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