Michigan Wolverines Football: Keys To A Michigan Win At Rutgers Saturday
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Keys to the Game: Michigan Wolverines Football at Rutgers

It’s a battle to get out of the Big Ten East basement when Michigan visits Rutgers for a primetime matchup under the lights Saturday night in Piscataway.

If you predicted that before the season, you’re either a savant, that person who knows nothing about sports but somehow wins your office pool when Loyola-Chicago makes it to a Final Four or a liar.

Opt-outs, injuries and uninspired football have taken the Wolverines’ season from bad to worse. Meanwhile, Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano has his team playing hard and with pride. The Scarlet Knights still aren’t good — it’s a rebuild in Piscataway — but there’s hope for the first time since they joined the Big Ten that the program could be on the ascent.

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Rutgers football head coach Greg Schiano takes on the Michigan Wolverines this weekend
Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano is back for his second stint with the program after leaving for the NFL. (ScarletKnights.com)

A win against a “name” program could give them a shot in the arm.

"We’re in the middle of looking at Michigan," Schiano said Monday. "It’s going to be a big challenge. I know some look at their record, but it’s still a Michigan football team. They’re very, very talented. They run extremely well.”

A Michigan football team in name only since an opening-week win over Minnesota.

Illinois upset Rutgers last week with a heavy dose of the run game. Here’s what U-M needs to do to come away with a win in Piscataway Saturday:

Michigan Football Key: Find Some Consistency On Offense, Especially In The Run Game

Michigan’s point totals continue to wane — from 49 in the opener to 24 against Michigan State, 21 at Indiana and a measly 11 against Wisconsin — because the Wolverines haven’t had a running game and have been relying on a young quarterback to shoulder the load.

The Minnesota win was a mirage given that the scouting report wasn’t out yet on redshirt sophomore quarterback Joe Milton. The Golden Gophers made it easy on him by giving him the dink-and-dunk game instead of forcing him to make his reads and throw the intermediate or long ball.

That won’t be the case for the rest of the year, and it’s up to offensive coordinator Josh Gattis to find Milton’s sweet spot (if he is indeed the starter Saturday — backup and redshirt frosh Cade McNamara has been getting reps with the ones this week, as well). But it’s also his responsibility to keep him out of poor down-and-distance situations. U-M’s first-down running game has been lousy this year, and they’ve gone to the well too many times on second-and-long.

Illinois quarterbacks rushed for nearly 200 yards last week against the Scarlet Knights. Is this the week Michigan out-schemes someone?

U-M’s offense has put the defense in bad position too often this year.

Michigan Football Key: Get Better Play From The Front Seven On Defense

We know about the deficiencies in the U-M secondary. The cornerbacks were better last week, but Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz didn’t need to test them very often given how effective the running game was while racking up a ridiculous 341 yards.

The corners need to avoid the big plays over their heads, of course. That will be a key each week. But Rutgers isn’t going to blow Michigan off the ball with its offensive line the way Wisconsin did, even with ends Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson questionable and out, respectively. They might well test the edges of the defense with jet sweeps and reverses, however, where the Badgers had great success with their receivers on jet sweeps especially — they gained more than 100 yards rushing that way.

The defensive ends need to do a better job getting push and re-establishing the line of scrimmage, while the linebackers simply need to do a better job covering the flats. Cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich wouldn’t blame the guys up front for lack of pass rush hindering his corners, but it hasn’t helped the young guys on the back end of the defense.

Schiano is a good coach and will know the weaknesses. These were two of the biggest a week ago.

Michigan Football Key: Play With Pride And Passion

It’s cliché, but it’s obvious — football is a game of emotion. We can talk about matchups, Michigan’s secondary vs. Rutgers’ receivers, etc., but we’ve seen it so many times over the years … upsets happen when a more-motivated, less-talented team brings the fight to its higher-rated (and less-motivated) opponent for 60 minutes.

We saw it in the second week of the season, when Michigan State punched the Wolverines in the mouth early and U-M never responded.

This is clearly a flawed Michigan team, even more so with all the injuries and opt-outs. But there’s no excuse to go through the motions and lay down when things aren’t going well.

That should never happen in Ann Arbor.

The Breakdown: Michigan Wolverines Football At Rutgers

Our last line in last week’s breakdown read like this: “This is their last chance to get some of their dignity back and flip the script on the season. We’ll find out how badly they want it.”

The answer — not very much.

The Wolverines are playing for pride now, just as they were in the second half of last week’s game. The 28-0 halftime deficit was the worst in Michigan Stadium history.

On a positive note, they did come out with much more fire in the second half and moved the ball on offense, played better defense. That, though, should be a given on every snap, every play — and too often it hasn’t been this year. The confidence has waned, and the body language has been terrible when things go wrong.

U-M has more talent than Rutgers at most positions, but the Scarlet Knights will be hungry to take another step under Schiano. If the Wolverines don’t match their intensity, and if they continue to play the way they have for much of the last three games, they’ll lose.

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