Rutgers reverses roles from last year entering Michigan
It’s been a little more than a year since the a Blackout crowd at High Point Solutions Stadium poured out of benches and onto the field after the Rutgers football team’s historic 26-24 triumph past Michigan.
The first Big Ten win in the Scarlet Knights’ inaugural season came against a reeling Wolverines team that spiraled out of control and fired former head coach Brady Hoke after a 5-7 year in Ann Arbor.
But that didn’t change the magnitude of the victory in Piscataway.
As the party began on the Banks, it eventually paved the way for an 8-5 finish where the Knights claimed the sixth bowl championship in program history with a dominant 40-21 win over North Carolina at the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit.
But one year later, a complete 180-degree turn ensued for both teams.
When Rutgers (3-5, 1-4) heads out to the Great Lakes State this time, similar bowl implications are on the table in its rematch with Michigan.
But the No. 16 Wolverines (6-2, 3-1) present a far greater challenge than the shadow of a team that limped into Piscataway last October.
“Schematically, they're very different,” said head coach Kyle Flood. “Last year as we were going into the game, I thought they were a very physical football team, very talented. But they play the game differently on offense now than they did last year.”
That starts at the top with Jim Harbaugh. The former Stanford and San Francisco 49ers head coach returned to his alma mater late last December to take the reins of the program he starred in as a three-year starting quarterback.
Opposite of the Michigan mess that Hoke lost control of, Harbaugh has taken much of the same roster and maximized its potential with the production of the football field to this point of the season.
Mirroring their coach’s blue-collar energy, the Wolverines boast one of the toughest defenses in all of college football. Nationally, Michigan’s unit ranks second in total defense (241.9 yards per game), rush defense (74.6 yards per game) and scoring defense (11.4 points per game).
“On defense, they're a little bit more multiple in their fronts on first and second down,” Flood said. “On third down last year, Michigan was very multiple in what they did, very challenging package last year, and they have a very challenging package this year, although we haven't completely game planned it yet. But I've seen enough to have an idea of what we're going to see on third down.”
The Wolverines only get better when their backs are against the wall on third down. On the season, opponents have converted just 24 third downs out of 111 attempts to rank second in the country at 21.6 percent.
That isn’t exactly good news to a Knights offense struggling to move the ball past midfield, let alone prevent three-and-outs to open up drives.
Starting at quarterback, Chris Laviano has had a miserable two-game stretch during blowouts to No. 1 Ohio State and Wisconsin. Combined, the sophomore is 14-of-34 (41.2 percent) with 148 yards and three turnovers.
Since leading Rutgers to a 25-point comeback at Indiana, a tie for the largest in program history, Laviano hasn’t been able to find his rhythm under center after he appeared to have turned the corner.
The Glen Head, New York, native knows the impact of his production — or lack thereof — helping or hindering the team’s overall performance.
“I think just knowing I didn’t do enough to help the team win (drives me crazy)," Laviano said. "That’s just the biggest thing that bothers me the most."
With that, the rest of the offense has subsequently sputtered. The Knights’ run game started with a promising 62 yards on 13 carries in the first quarter last week before the Badgers clogged the one-dimensional point of attack.
With the reemergence of sophomore Josh Hicks, the running backs rotation expects to run with much of the same as senior Paul James, sophomore Robert Martin and junior Justin Goodwin get their respective touches as they come.
But at the end of the day, junior right guard Chris Muller thinks Rutgers needs to resuscitate both elements in order for the offense to have a fighting chance against a top-ranked Michigan defense.
“We really need to really get a better run game going so we can have an efficient pass game and, like I said before, their inside guys are some of the strongest in the country,” Muller said. “That was their strong point last year and their defense is very aggressive and their corners cover extremely well. So it’s gonna be a great challenge.”
The physicality that extends to the defensive backfield that starts with East Orange, New Jersey, native Jabrill Peppers. The Paramus Catholic (New Jersey) product didn’t take the field in last year’s contest, but has been a key contributor on offense, defense and special teams this year.
It all adds to the feel around the second all-time meeting between the two programs is much different than the one that took place more than a year ago.
While the Knights have remained confident and cool in the face of adversity with the focus on the next game up in front of a possible capacity crowd of 109,901 at Michigan Stadium, it’s hard not to overlook the overall magnitude of the visit to “The Big House.”
And with the roles almost flip-flopped entirely, the sense of urgency for Rutgers is rising.
“We’ve gotta win,” Muller said. “These are ‘gotta win’ situations and we have to prepare better than we have ever before to win this game.”
For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @GarrettStepien and @TargumSports on Twitter.