It may not have been pretty, but Michigan football’s 20-13 win over Rutgers still goes down as a victory.
Here’s a look at what they’re saying about the Wolverines following the gritty triumph to kick off Big Ten play and move Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines to 4-0 …
It was only fitting that kicker Jake Moody would miss his first field goal of the year, too, with a chance to put the game away late. You could feel it coming.
All that said — that assessment isn’t a postmortem, thanks to a great start and some timely, opportunistic play. Freshman linebacker Nikhai Hill-Green struggled in replacing injured Josh Ross, but he made two huge plays late in the fourth quarter when the Scarlet Knights were driving to try to tie, one on third and short and then on fourth down.
David Ojabo’s strip and Junior Colson’s fumble recovery saved the day on the last drive, the first-half offense was really good, a great mix of run and pass for 233 yards, 7.1 yards per play and 20 points, and the defense only allowed three points before the break.
The hope is they just fell asleep thinking they had the game in the bag … that this was a wake-up call and a case of things spiraling, a one-game aberration for a team that had been humming.
Thanks to the schedule-makers, we’ll find out soon enough. It’s fair, though, to be a bit guy shy after what we’ve witnessed in the recent past, especially when the competition is about to get so much better.
The Wolverines survived, no doubt. Harbaugh didn’t hesitate to point it out afterward.
“It wasn’t pretty, but when they start making a place for pretty on the scoreboard, then we’ll worry about that,” the head coach said.
Public palaver aside, if you think the Wolverines don’t have worries inside Schembechler Hall following that second half, we’ve got some College Football Playoff tickets to sell you.
The feel-good cruise is finished. Now it’s a fight to the finish.
The Wolverines play three of their next four, and five of their next seven, on the road in the Big Ten. That’s a recipe for taking some lumps, especially if their 4-0 start involved even a whiff of smoke or a hint of mirrors.
It sure looked like it in the second half against Rutgers. The Wolverines again did what they wanted to do for a half. They built a 20-3 halftime lead against a fellow 3-0 team, and then just stopped. They stopped scoring, repeatedly needed to back the Scarlet Knights away from their goal line and started producing dyspepsia for another six-digit home crowd.
They didn’t rack up a fourth straight 300-yard rushing game. Instead, they hit a brick wall at 112, the Scarlet Knights walling up to stop them, and doing so. They didn’t roll up 63 points (or 78, like they did against the Scarlet Blights only five years ago). They scored 20 in a half, and called it a game. They came perilously close to calling it a loss.
The issues are troubling.
But at least Michigan can be encouraged by its response. When the going got tough, the Wolverines held strong.
Up until the late afternoon Saturday, it was uncertain how Michigan would react if it were tested. In the preseason, the Wolverines talked about the team’s renewed spirit and the improved culture within the locker room. The energy was pulsating, they claimed.
The change was needed after Michigan appeared to play with questionable effort at times last season. In 2020, snapshots of the sideline revealed a lifeless team with a fragile psyche. Back then, adversity caused U-M to combust.
Defensive lineman Christopher Hinton remembered it well. He insisted it wasn’t like that Saturday, though.
“I guess you can say it was a little bit different,” he said, “just being positive and trusting the process … I think we had a positive attitude throughout the whole game, through all the ups and down. I really like that about the defense and this team this year. We’ve just got to keep that rolling because every game is not going to be sunshine and rainbows. We’ve just got to stay stout in tough times.”
It could end up being the difference between success and disappointment for these Wolverines.
The idea that the Wolverines would fare better with McCarthy courses through a segment of the fan base, and uneven performances like the one McNamara turned in against Rutgers will only strengthen those rumblings. He completed 8 of 11 passes for 156 yards in the first half as Michigan reached the end zone on its first two possessions and scored points on four of five drives. Then he misfired on 80% of his pass attempts and threw for only seven yards in the second half as U-M went three and out on four straight drives to nearly squander a 17-point lead.
On an afternoon when the nation’s best rushing attack flatlined — the Wolverines averaged 2.9 yards per carry and were outgained, 196-112 — McNamara only strengthened the belief that he’s not the type of quarterback to seize a game by the throat.
“I think going into (halftime) we had a ton of momentum,” McNamara said. “Offensively we were clicking on all cylinders. I think us losing that momentum is what changed. A couple of those stalls, no matter what it was, running the ball or throwing the ball, we just struggled a little bit to get the (initial) first down in the second half. I think that’s what led to the struggle.”
Before Saturday, any undercurrent of malcontent among the pro-McCarthy crowd was largely assuaged by a trio of blowout victories. McNamara might not be their preferred quarterback for what they hope is a restorative season for the program, but the offense hummed and the scoreboard ballooned and it’s hard to argue with turnover-free football when the end result is winning.
That narrative began to change in the second half of Saturday’s game, when McNamara’s shortcomings threatened victory for the first time.
… And the Big Ten looks as unpredictable and wide-open as ever. But the second half was one long clock-bleed, and the Wolverines made just enough stops. They forced two field-goal attempts, including a missed 29-yarder that would’ve made it 20-16 with 9:38 left. They held firm on fourth-and-2 at their 39 with 5:24 left, and the last Rutgers gasp ended when Vedral fumbled and Junior Colson recovered.
It was so tight to the closing minutes, Michigan players almost had to convince people they’d won.
“We feel we can run with anybody on the field,” tight end Erick All said. “We knew what we were coming into. We treat it like a win, like any other. We were all happy, thank God we’re 4-0, (but) everybody knew we got out by the skin of our teeth.”
This was not going to be an easy game, no matter what the oddsmakers said. Rutgers has experienced players at key positions and probably should’ve prevailed last year, when Michigan pulled out a 48-42, triple-overtime victory.
This wasn’t a loss, but it should be a lesson. You can’t stay enamored with one facet of the game, and if McNamara struggles like he did, freshman J.J. McCarthy must see the field.
You can try to hammer away with the run when you have a stout, bruising offensive line. But Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins got stuck in too much traffic, and there was no deception or misdirection to throw Rutgers off. Against what’s considered a solid defense, the Wolverines finished with only 275 total yards (to Rutgers’ 352).
This team is much more disciplined and physical than last year’s group. But can you really count on the turnover-less streak continuing? Can you really count on winning with one completion in the second half? As the game unfolded, they weren’t fooling the Scarlet Knights, and they’re not fooling themselves.
The Wolverines can’t play another half like they played Saturday and expect to beat any of the teams remaining on their schedule. If they hadn’t been playing at home, with a 17-point lead against a team that had trouble converting in the red zone, they wouldn’t be undefeated right now. The Wolverines were so good in their first three games that you’re tempted to cut them some slack, but the harsh truth is that their fast start will be forgotten in a heartbeat if Saturday’s performance becomes the new normal.
Asked what went wrong in the second half, the Wolverines talked about losing rhythm and momentum. Those are symptoms, not a diagnosis. The bigger question is how Rutgers managed to neutralize an offense that looked so potent through its first 14 quarters. Was it by stacking the box? Other teams have tried that. But unlike Michigan’s first three opponents, Rutgers found a way to close up gaps against the run and force the Wolverines out of their comfort zone.
All along, the Wolverines have expressed confidence that their passing game is capable of delivering when teams focus on stopping the run. We didn’t see that Saturday. After going 8-of-11 for 156 yards in the first half, Cade McNamara was 1-of-5 in the second half for 7 yards. He missed some throws that should have been completed, including one in the end zone right before halftime. He had four completions of 20 yards or longer in the first half, but when the offense needed a big play to get itself going, the Wolverines kept coming up empty.
“We just couldn’t really find a rhythm,” McNamara said. “That’s the first time that’s happened, or at least when I’ve been in the game, that we haven’t done that. As an offense, obviously that’s frustrating. We’ve got to do what we can to not let that happen again.”
The Wolverines aren’t asking McNamara to win the game for them. His job is to take care of the ball, avoid negative plays and keep the offense moving. They’ve made it work so far, but seeing how Rutgers was able to contain their running game, it’s clear the Wolverines need more from their quarterback. We’ve seen McNamara attack in the past, as he did coming off the bench with a 17-point deficit last year against the Scarlet Knights. It’s time to turn him loose and see if he can recapture that spark.
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