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Rutgers defense is pivotal in road matchup against Michigan

For Rutgers fans searching for a glimpse of hope going into Saturday's game against Michigan, here's something: four games into the conference season, the teams are tied in the Big Ten standings.

The Rutgers football team is riding an air of confidence it hasn't seen in quite some time into Ann Arbor, Michigan this weekend. It is coming off of consecutive Big Ten wins for the first time in program history, just as the Wolverines dropped out of the national rankings.

It may not be much, but momentum is on the visitors' side.

"They're all of the things that you would hope the football team would be," said head coach Chris Ash. "They're excited. They're eager to ... work and keep getting better. I would like to think that we're focused. The last few weeks of preparation that we had has been pretty focused preparation. I think overall it's a pretty positive mood."

The Scarlet Knights (3-4, 2-2) will make the trip west to face off against a struggling Michigan (5-2, 2-2) side, losing out to No. 2 Penn State last week by a 29-point margin — its worst of the season.

That result came just a week after being taken into overtime by an Indiana squad it should have put away easily. The Wolverines eventually did get past, but it took a while.

On the other hand, there is Rutgers, who has beaten Illinois, 35-24, and Purdue, 14-12, over the last two weeks, in large part to its defense.

Whereas the Knights' passing game has been fairly nonexistent throughout the two victories, the constant has been a clutch defense, especially in the game against the Boilermakers.

Total yards aside, Rutgers has excelled at keeping Purdue at bay on third and fourth downs, stopping the visiting side on 15 of 19 attempts.

The resilience at all position groups on the defense culminated in a game-saving 2-point conversion stop after a Purdue touchdown brought the game within one play.

Much of that has been due to a secondary that has stepped up beyond measure after injuries chipped away at its depth. In the stretch of two games, cornerback Blessuan Austin and safeties Kiy Hester and Saquan Hampton went down with injuries, leaving the coaches to scramble for bodies at defensive back. At that point, it was more about getting 11 players on defense than performing well.

"You just don't really know until they get an opportunity to get out there and perform ... You hope they'll come through, and so far, so good," said defensive coordinator Jay Niemann. "They've done a nice job, and hopefully will continue right along those lines."

It's players like converted wide receiver Jawuan Harris and backups K.J. Gray and Damon Hayes who have filled in sharply. With opposing quarterbacks singling them out as targets over the last two games, each has played exceptionally well, with Gray and Hayes nabbing interceptions last Saturday.

"Damon, we knew he's a really good player," said junior cornerback Isaiah Wharton. "We knew when (Blessuan Austin) went down, teams were gonna target him. Just to see him make that play, it meant a lot because we know we're capable of making those plays, but for that one we felt like it was really an icebreaker, I would say, for us."

But even with the success of the defensive backs and in high-pressure situations, there were still holes that need to be filled as Rutgers squares off against a run-happy Michigan offense with multiple weapons.

The Knights allowed 279 rushing yards against Purdue, resulting in zero touchdowns — the Wolverines may use 279 yards differently.

Eleven of Michigan's 15 touchdowns this season have come from the run, with Karan Higdon (6), Ty Isaac (2) and Chris Evans (2), all collecting multiple. They share the ball efficiently — each has over 300 yards on the ground this season, compared to Rutgers, where only one player (Gus Edwards) does.

If the Knights offense is going to continue to struggle, there is no room for the defense to slip up versus a team like Michigan. Recent results aside, one thing remains abundantly clear — Michigan is expected to win and by a considerable margin.

But both teams have shown through their first seven games that expectations can be slashed. Rutgers should have beaten Eastern Michigan, and it should have lost to Purdue. Michigan should have beaten Michigan State and at least put up a fight against Penn State.

But at least for the Knights, they expect stumbles here and there as they rebuild and figure out their identity as a team. But after experiencing two Big Ten wins — the first for many of them — that's a feeling they don't want to lose.

"They know we're getting better, and that's why anytime you can see improvement, even though you may not get the W, you see improvement, you feel improvement," Ash said. "They've been hungry and eager to come back and keep getting better."

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