Two years after first Big Ten win, Rutgers eyes another historic victory over No. 4 Michigan
It was a crisp night in Piscataway on Oct. 5, 2014, but the game being played at High Point Solutions Stadium was reaching a boiling point.
A game that had six lead changes headed into the fourth quarter seemed set for a seventh, with visiting Michigan driving downfield against the Rutgers football team’s defense, looking to deliver another dagger into the chest of a team three weeks removed from suffering a heartbreaking 13-10 loss to Penn State in its Big Ten debut.
The Wolverines were only the second conference opponent the Scarlet Knights faced since joining the power five conference that season but the prospect of it being their first ever conference win became smaller with every yard Michigan gained.
Down by two, the Wolverines had gone 48 yards from their 14 to the Knights’ 38 in eight plays, setting up a 58-yard field goal attempt that would’ve given the visitors their first lead of the second half with 3:07 remaining in the contest.
But those who witnessed what happened next will never forget it, then-sophomore defensive end Kemoko Turay seemingly touching the night sky after exploding off the ground to block the attempt — 1 of 3 field goal blocks he had on the season — to practically secure Rutgers’ first ever conference win as a member of the Big Ten.
“(At) first I looked at him, I was like ‘No way he jumped that high. He had to step on someone,’” said senior right guard Chris Muller on his reaction from the sidelines. “I was ecstatic.”
The landmark 26-24 win was also the first time the two storied programs — Rutgers played in the first-ever college football game, while Michigan has won the most games in the history of the sport — ever met.
Muller went on to say the thing that stood out the most from the game was winning it, adding that the way the Knights battled regardless of the score, not allowing the up-and-down flow of the contest get in the way of them achieving the win also comes to mind.
A new and improved version of the Wolverines got their revenge a year later, thrashing the Knights 49-16 in the first meeting between the sides with Jim Harbaugh at the helm in Ann Arbor.
The teams face off this Saturday in primetime (7 p.m., ESPN2) under the lights at High Point Solutions Stadium, the atmosphere in which Rutgers has earned the biggest wins in program history.
The most recent game on the list was the historic night in 2014 and Saturday will provide the next opportunity to add to it, but the third meeting with the Wolverines won’t be the same as the first.
“One thing is for sure — the team that (Michigan is) this year is definitely a different team than the team they were (in 2014) so we’ll have to be at our very best out there,” said senior defensive end Darius Hamilton.
The most glaring difference is the man leading the team on the sidelines.
The Wolverines traded Brady Hoke — whose career in Ann Arbor started well but grew worse with each passing season until a losing record in 2014 marked the end — for Harbaugh, a beloved former quarterback and coaching savant who has had success at every stop he’s made as a head coach.
The momentum he carried from San Diego to Stanford to San Francisco didn’t stop when he arrived at his alma mater, bringing a team Hoke led to a 5-7 season the year before to a 10-3 record and a dominant 41-7 win against Florida in the Citrus Bowl in his first year in charge.
Constant eyes around him and his program during an offseason where he made headlines seemingly every day for his antics in recruiting certainly didn’t halt the swift progress Harbaugh continues to make into his second season.
Michigan (5-0, 1-0) has won as many games this season entering Piscataway as they did during the entire year in which they suffered the upset in the same venue, scoring at least 45 points in each of the first four games of the season.
The Wolverines were held to just 14 points last week but it was enough to pull out a win against then-No. 8 Wisconsin in a physical battle reminiscent of classic Big Ten play. What their offense lacked was supplemented by a stout performance by their defense, keeping a team that averaged 28 points per game entering the contest to a single touchdown.
If Rutgers hopes to remain in the game, it’ll have to reach the levels of Wisconsin’s defense, particularly in pressuring junior quarterback Wilton Speight, who was sacked four times and hurried another three on the afternoon.
“I think it is attainable,” said senior defensive end Julian Pinnix-Odrick on the Knights replicating Wisconsin’s pressure. “You can’t really be out there afraid of things aren’t for the taking. I think the … D-line has to take control of the game. I think it’s our job as the leaders of the team to really do that. It’s a line of scrimmage football team and we’re on the D-line and we’re the aggressors and we have to get after the quarterback.”
Rutgers’ defense playing out of its mind and containing the Wolverines’ offense would be a huge step in the right direction towards the biggest upset win in program history, but an even more important aspect is the Knights being able to get in rhythm on offense after an all-time bad performance a week prior.
Junior quarterback Chris Laviano completed just three passes in 12 attempts in last week’s 58-0 drubbing in Columbus at the hands of No. 2 Ohio State, gaining just 33 yards in the process.
Laviano isn't the only issue, as everyone on the Knights will tell you, but playing the best game of his career may be necessary to earn a win both the players and fans could daydream about for years to come.
"Sometimes," said senior defensive end Julian Pinnix-Odrick when asked if he thinks about his first Big Ten win. "It’s fun to think about but it seems, gosh, it went by so fast. It was two years ago, right? So yeah, it was pretty cool, but we’re trying to replicate something like that and trying to do more, trying to move on and do more great things with this program."