Keys To The Game: Michigan Wolverines Football vs. Rutgers
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Keys To The Game: Michigan Wolverines Football vs. Rutgers

If we're on to the Big Ten Network — and we think we are — last year's Michigan - Rutgers game will be shown as a Michigan 'Classic' for years to come, right after a 67-65 triple-overtime win from the Rich Rodriguez era.

Veteran fans, of course, skip over that one any time it's on faster than the Michigan State 'punt game' from 2015. That game was a microcosm of the 2008-10 seasons — great offense against a bad defense, bad defense period and a game past teams would have won by three scores.

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Michigan football defensive back Daxton Hill
Michigan Wolverines football defensive back Daxton Hill has been one of U-M's defensive MVPs through three games. (AP Images)

Last year's 48-42 overtime win was a bit different. One, that team was an anomaly in the Jim Harbaugh era in that it was dysfunctional (to be kind). Attribute it to COVID and empty stadiums, whatever ... the culture was rotten, and the program seems to have moved past it (with the caveat that it's only been three games — but this team looks connected).

Two, we saw redshirt freshman quarterback Cade McNamara's emergence as a guy who could step up when the moment called for it. He threw for 260 yards and three scores, and ran for another in leading the Wolverines back from 17 down after Joe Milton faltered.

"He capitalized on it. That's probably one of the biggest statements you could make when you come into a game like that," Harbaugh said. "That’s your opportunity — 17 points down, I think it was. Rally the team.

"A comeback victory, that does a lot. It does a tremendous amount for the ol’ confidence and the belief everybody has in the individual."

He'll get another shot Saturday to take the Scarlet Knights down.

Here are keys to a week four Michigan win:

Michigan Football Key: Challenge the Scarlet Knights' Secondary

Rutgers is down two men in the secondary, including starting cornerback Max Melton, after a paintball gun incident, and depth is not an area in which Greg Schiano's team is strong … yet. He's recruiting better, and this program will be formidable in the future, but they're still a few years away.

Schiano is a good coach, and probably smart enough to understand the best way to slow Michigan is to force longer second- and third-down situations by stopping the run. Minus junior receiver Ronnie Bell, out for the season with a knee injury, the Wolverines have yet to prove they can move the ball through the air consistently.

U-M leads the nation in rushing yardage, but Rutgers has allowed only 3.39 yards per carry and 113 per game (45th nationally).

"They're playing really salty defense, have good special teams. They play good football," Harbaugh said.

They're 15th in the country, too, in pass defense, allowing only 145.7 yards per game through the air, and tied for 17th in passing plays allowed over 10 yards (17) and tied for ninth in 20-plus yarders allowed through the air (five).

But U-M has better athletes and should be able to move the ball through the air if (when) Rutgers stacks the box. But to do that, they'll have to ...

Michigan Football Key: Protect Cade McNamara

Michigan hasn't thrown enough this year for us to know how good this offensive line (and tight ends and running backs) is in pass protection. We do know the Wolverines have been solid, not perfect in that area this year — 36th nationally according to Pro Football Focus, though line coach Sherrone Moore said Wednesday he didn't pay much attention to those grades.

"I don’t really look at it," he said. "I know there are all types of rankings and all those things, but they don’t know what plays are being run. They can grade things totally different than we actually see it."

So again — it might be better, might be worse.

But we do know Rutgers is tied for fourth nationally in managing 4.7 sacks per game (14 in three games), and they like to bring pressure with blitzing linebackers. They have guys who can get to the quarterback from every position up front, so this is going to be a new challenge for the Wolverines if they choose to (or are forced to) throw the ball ... something we know they'll probably have to do next week in order to win.

Michigan Football Key: Don't Allow First- And Second-Down Running Success

Harbaugh was kind in assessing the Scarlet Knights' offense through three games.

"They’re scoring points," he said, noting they were averaging 40-plus points per game.

But they're tied for 79th in the country in rushing yards per game (144.3) and 92nd in passing offense (206.7) — and they haven't exactly played a gauntlet of a schedule. They scored 61 points in a win over Temple and 45 against Delaware last week, but they managed only 17 and 2.7 yards per play in the only game they've played against decent competition — Syracuse (a 17-7 victory) — and don't have great quarterback play with Noah Vedral under center.

So, expect Schiano and Co. to try to test the Wolverines on the ground a bit, something the first three opponents really didn't do. They haven't been good to date, but running back Isaih Pacheco is capable, and if the Scarlet Knights can go heavy and move the Wolverines off the ball up front a bit, bleed out four yards on first- and second-down plays, they could shorten the game.

We expect the game plan will include a heavy dose of the run game.

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The Breakdown: Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Michigan Wolverines

Rutgers isn't good, but this is a well-coached team that will show different looks than it has all year in an effort to move the ball. Schiano knows he and his team missed a golden opportunity to beat the Wolverines when they were down last year, and they'll be motivated for the upset.

"They are good — they are a really good football team," he said. "... We know what we're up against.

"It sounds like Michigan is back to being Michigan, and we had our crack last year and didn't do it. So now we're going on the road, and we've got to find a way against a very good football team."

The Wolverines are humming in the run game, and we don't expect them to bail on it even if Rutgers has early success in slowing it. But we do believe you'll see more play action and first-down passing against a depleted Scarlet Knights' secondary — probably only as much as it takes to win before bringing out all the artillery the following week at Wisconsin.

We expect a solid Michigan victory to kick off the Big Ten season.

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