Rutgers ventures out to Ann Arbor, Michigan this week for the first time in school history to take on the Wolverines in the historic Michigan Stadium, affectionately known as the Big House. It is the largest stadium in college football with officially close to 107,000 seats, although capacity is expanded close to 115,000 at times. Rutgers is coming off two consecutive blow out losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin by a combined score of 97-17.
We were fortunate this week to speak with Drew Hallett from our SB Nation sister site, Maize n Brew. They run a great site and I highly recommend checking them out before Saturday's game. To get caught up on the state of the Michigan football team, Drew kindly answered my questions below.
Michigan is now bowl eligible only eight games into this season, after missing a bowl last season. How would you grade coach Jim Harbaugh in his first season so far? What were the expectations for this team at the start of the season and how much have they changed during the season?
I would hand Jim Harbaugh an A because Michigan has exceeded all expectations in 2015.
In August, I was more bearish than most. Many prognosticators pegged Michigan at 8-4, but, while I thought about doing the same, I slipped my prediction down to 7-5. I believed that Harbaugh would begin the rebuilding process and get Michigan back on track to return to its former status as a premier college football program. However, I thought it would last at least three seasons. As for this first season, there were so many question marks on the offensive side of the ball. Can Jake Rudock be the safety net at quarterback that Michigan needs? Does Michigan have a running back that can grind out yards on the ground? Who will be the vertical threat in the passing game? How long will it take Michigan's offensive line to transition to Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Tim Drevno's man-blocking schemes? Though I knew Harbaugh would find the answer for some of them, it was improbable that he would answer all of them. Add in that Michigan was projected to have a great but not elite defense, middling special teams, three night-ish games in hostile atmospheres (Utah, Minnesota, Penn State), and two matchups with top-10 teams (Ohio State and Michigan State), and an 8-4 or 7-5 record in Harbaugh's first season just felt correct.
However, after nine weeks, Michigan is 6-2 and playing like a top-15 -- and maybe even better -- team. The defense has been elite and is considered by many metrics to be the best in the nation, even after a shaky performance against Minnesota last weekend. Michigan is first in special teams efficiency -- yes, despite that little incident in the Michigan State game about which we don't speak. And both of those units consistently hand a middling-at-best Michigan offense excellent starting field position. This has been a recipe for success as the Wolverines lost on the road to what we learned would be a very good Utah team, beat their next five opponents -- two of which were ranked -- by a combined score of 160-14, fell victim to one of the flukiest plays in the history of football in a last-second loss to Michigan State, and escaped with a win after a goal-line stand against a Minnesota outfit that was emotionally charged due to Jerry Kill's midweek resignation.
Accordingly, Michigan should finish with nine or 10 regular-season wins. The Wolverines will be sizable favorites in their next three games (Rutgers, at Indiana, at Penn State) and a slight home underdog to Ohio State. At this point, eight wins would be a disappointment, while nine wins would feel about right. And, if Michigan can win out and somehow clinch the Big Ten East, statues of Harbaugh will be erected.
Michigan suffered a heartbreaking loss to Michigan State over two weeks ago, has the fanbase recovered? Does the fact that Michigan has greatly improved this year ease the pain at all or is losing to Michigan State always a bitter pill to swallow?
A loss of that variety, to an in-state rival in a showdown that would shape the race to win the Big Ten East, has left many Michigan fans suffering from a sports form of PTSD. Unlike the situation in most last-second losses, Michigan and Michigan State weren't tied or Michigan State didn't have the ball in scoring position with a chance to win. The game essentially was over. There were 10 seconds left, and Michigan had the ball past midfield. All punter Blake O'Neill had to do was catch the snap and kick the ball away. That was it. ESPN Stats and Info revealed that Michigan had a 99.8-percent chance to win before that snap. Michigan fans already had begun to celebrate the huge victory.
And then that happened.
In the minutes and hours and even days after the conclusion, Michigan fans were more stunned than anything. Michigan has been on the wrong end of some horrifying losses -- Kordell Stewart's Hail Mary and The Horror (Appalachian State) -- but this one to Michigan State may have been the most stunning of all. Once that passed and the numbness had dissipated, some Michigan fans took comfort in knowing that the Spartans needed the miracle of all miracles to beat what could be the worst team Michigan has under Jim Harbaugh -- to which, we'll see because this Michigan defense is special even if the offense is lackluster. Others were depressed and/or furious that they must endure another year of gloating from the Spartan faithful. Me? I was saddened to see a very good Michigan team lose its shot at the playoffs*.
But, regardless of whether the emotion felt was comfort, anger, or disappointment, every Michigan fan hurt on the inside in some form.
*Unless chaos of the 2007 kind breaks out in November.
What is the injury status of starting quarterback Jake Rudock? If he doesn't play, what can we expect from backup Wilton Speight? He did reasonably well in relief last week, is there any expectation he could start next season or is Shane Morris still the favorite?
Jake Rudock has practiced this week, and, on Wednesday, offensive coordinator Tim Drevno informed the media that he "absolutely" expects Rudock to compete against Rutgers. Though a precise diagnosis of Rudock's injury was not released, Jim Harbaugh did mention that there were no signs of a concussion. Rudock took near-simultaneous shots to the helmet and torso while sliding during a scramble, so many have been left to guess that he has a torso injury, probably around his ribs. If Rudock starts, it will be interesting to see how he performs given that he has been an up-and-down game manager all season. He possesses great pocket presence -- it helps when your line provides you with clean pockets most of the game -- and can throw some strikes on the short and intermediate stuff. Where his faults lie are on the vertical aerial attack. Rudock has not completed a pass that has traveled more than 30 yards in the air, often failing to connect with receivers that are wide open and streaking down the field. He also seems to have lost his faith in his receivers, such as Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, and Jake Butt, to make plays when in one-on-one matchups because he won't throw it in their direction when those situations arise. This isn't because his receivers aren't capable of making such plays. It's because Rudock seems to fear turning the football over after a he tossed a flurry of picks in the opening weeks. So, when you take a quarterback like that and add an injury to it, it certainly leaves lots of questions.
If Rudock can't compete, Wilton Speight will be the starter, and I have no idea what we should expect from him. Speight is a redshirt freshman that, despite being an Under Armour All-American in high school, was only a three-star prospect. He was considered more of a project and not expected to play this early in his career. And, based on what I saw against Minnesota, which was his first extensive action of non-garbage-time college football, he's still very much a project. Yes, Speight fired a missile on the game-winning touchdown pass to a double post pattern where only his receiver could make the catch and flashed some moxie on the ensuing two-point conversion, but, before then, he look terrified out there. On his first pass drop, he fled from a clean pocket on third down to throw the ball away when he had two check-down options available past the marker. As a result, Michigan's offense sputtered for three straight drives before the Wolverines were gifted with a possession that started at the Minnesota 40-yard line thanks to a punt that had some serious backspin on it. Speight capitalized on that series, but can he march Michigan down the length of the field? Can he make the right reads and throws? I honestly don't know.
As for next season, there will be lots of competition. Michigan could have as many as seven scholarship quarterbacks competing for that job. If you're seeking a name that you should watch out for, it's John O'Korn, the transfer from Houston. O'Korn is ineligible this season, but there have been many practice reports that utter that O'Korn is the best quarterback on this roster and the staff wishes it could put him out there.
Michigan has a stable of running backs led by De'Veon Smith. How much of a rotation has there been recently and should we expect a run heavy focus, regardless of whether Rudock plays or not? Rutgers has a thin and inexperienced secondary, which receivers should Rutgers fan worry about?
There will be two running backs that will get the majority of the carries. De'Veon Smith has been the feature back, leading the team with 105 carries for 451 yards (4.30 YPC) and four touchdowns. Jim Harbaugh loves Smith's brash running style. Smith is more of a punisher than a runner, preferring to bulldoze a defender rather than slip around him. Though I don't like to complain about a running back that uses the truck stick, Smith can be too much of a north-south runner. Michigan needs a back that has the vision to see holes before they are there and use cuts to open them, but Smith struggles with this. He may do it once or twice a game, but, mostly, he relies on the offensive line to push forward and create the lanes from him. If the line can't -- like it hasn't the past two games against Michigan State and Minnesota -- Smith's effectiveness wears off (28 runs for 61 yards in his last two games). Plus, Smith has been hampered with an ankle injury that he suffered against BYU back in Week 4. The pain seems to come and go, but Smith had to hobble off the field during Michigan's final drive against the Gophers. I still expect him to play -- as does Michigan's coaching staff -- but I don't expect him to be Michigan's workhorse this weekend.
The other running back is Drake Johnson. When Smith and Derrick Green stalled against Minnesota, it was Johnson to whom the staff went to carry the load, and Johnson was effective. Against the Gophers, he toted the rock 10 times for 55 yards (5.5 YPC) as Michigan tried to get him out on the edge with stretches and outside zone runs. Michigan did this because Johnson has track speed and has the vision and patience to use his blockers to generate holes. He may not have the quickest burst in and out of his cuts, but he at least cuts, which can't be said for Michigan's other running backs. I predict that Smith and Johnson will split the carries early, and Michigan will ride the hot hand later.
As for whether Michigan will pound it on the ground, I think the Wolverines will focus more on running the ball. When one criticizes Rutgers' defense, most will point at the secondary because the Scarlet Knights' pass defense is 122nd in S&P+. It's an easy target. But the run defense hasn't been much better (108th in S&P+ and 90th in YPC) and has allowed 490 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns in the past two games. Michigan will want to control the clock and pace of the game and has more trust in its offense to produce yards on the ground than through the air, particularly because Jake Rudock may not be at full strength. This doesn't mean the Wolverines won't throw the ball, though, because Michigan does have some weapons for receivers. Jake Butt is one of the nation's best tight ends, even if numbers don't suggest as much. Amara Darboh is a slant merchant that uses his body to shield off defenders. Jehu Chesson is a speedster, and Michigan will use him on deeper patterns and jet sweeps. And there's this guy named Jabrill Peppers who's been involved on offense lately. For the first time this season, Michigan may be explosive when it passes the ball, but don't expect an aerial assault from the Wolverines.
Michigan's defense is ranked nationally #1 in S&P+ and #2 in yards per game and points per game. What is the strength of their defense and what players should Rutgers fans be aware of? How much of an impact has new defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin made on this unit?
The strength of Michigan's defense is upfront. It wouldn't be a stretch to label Michigan's defensive line as the best in college football. Not only is the unit talented, it's very deep as well. Ryan Glasgow has transformed from a walk-on into one of the Big Ten's best defensive tackles. Glasgow doesn't post big numbers often, but he's disruptive at the point of attack and opens things up for his teammates. Willie Henry is Michigan's biggest and strongest defensive lineman and went on a four-game terror before last weekend, during which he racked up 7.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. Maurice Hurst, Jr. is Michigan's reserve defensive tackle, but he's good enough to start at any other Big Ten school. Good luck finding a tackle that fires off the snap faster than he does. Strongside defensive end Chris Wormley is 300 pounds but moves like a tight end. He's at his best when he's able to drive through the inside gap and make stops in the backfield, which was a common theme when he recorded seven tackles for loss in the first three games of the season. I can keep going, but I think you get the idea. The point is that Michigan's defensive line is excellent against the run (second in adjusted line yards) and the pass (22nd in adjusted sack rate) because Michigan can rotate at all four spots on the line and come after the the offense in waves. This is a formidable task for most offensive lines, and, by the fourth quarter, they are worn down and just want to sink into an ice bath. I don't blame them. I would, too.
There are two other Michigan defenders that you should know. One is corner Jourdan Lewis, who is a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award and en route to being a finalist. He's one of the best cover corners because receivers are unable to separate from him whether he jams at the line of scrimmage or backs off a few yards. His trail technique is superb as well, but where has developed the most from 2014 to 2015 is his ability to use his hands to interfere and grab at receivers without catching the officials' attention. It's an art. However, we haven't seen Lewis matchup with a receiver as explosive as Leonte Carroo. I know that Carroo is questionable with an ankle injury, so Carroo may not be 100 percent even if he does participate. If he does, Lewis will match up with him all over the field, and it will be a very entertaining battle.
The second defender is Jabrill Peppers, whom Michigan will station at boundary corner, nickelback, strong safety, and linebacker. Simply, Peppers is Michigan's hybrid-space player, and the Wolverines will use him all over the field as weapon against both the run and the pass. Though Peppers' cover technique has improved as the season has progressed, he is at his best when he's near the line of scrimmage. Not only does he provide more than adequate run support from the edge, there are not many players that can blow up or jump a screen quite like his Peppers. It's where his aggressiveness, physicality, speed, and agility all come together to form one electric highlight. Peppers will see lots of snaps, and, if Rutgers wants to expose him as best as it can, try to run slants and crossing patterns against him from the slot.
As for D.J. Durkin's impact, he had lots of parts with which to work. Under the guidance of Greg Mattison, Michigan's defense was very good last season, but it struggled to rush the passer and cover in the secondary. The biggest red flag was in the back because Michigan switched to a press man scheme, but corners not named Lewis didn't know how to jam receivers at the line. The result was that receivers earned free releases at the snap and burned Michigan's corners. You would know. The Scarlet Knights torched Blake Countess when Gary Nova tossed three touchdowns against him last season. What Durkin has done is come in and teach the defensive backs how to play a more aggressive man press. The improvement across the board has been vast, though corners not named Lewis can be beat with well-executed double moves, and their coverage has aided the front in their pursuit of the quarterback. Basically, Durkin added the last piece of the puzzle.
Michigan has had great special teams play this season and is much improved from last season. How much personnel has new coordinator John Baxter changed from last season or is it more of a result of better coaching?
The answer is yes.
Michigan has new personnel across the board: Kenny Allen at kicker, Blake O'Neill at punter, and Jabrill Peppers at returner. Allen has been a pleasant surprise, making every kick inside 40 yards and some from beyond, because training camp reports indicated that kicking battle was worrisome. O'Neill is an Australian grad transfer who can launch long rugby kicks as well as drop punts inside the 10-yard line. Of course, he's prone to bobbling a snap once in awhile. [shakes fist at sky] And Peppers is an explosive athlete that can produce long returns, but he also helps Michigan's field position greatly by fielding odd punts and not permitting them to bounce and roll for additional yardage.
But, ultimately, John Baxter's presence has made a huge difference. Under Brady Hoke, not only would Michigan not use a spread punt formation, which meant fewer gunners and left Michigan more vulnerable to surrendering long returns, the Wolverines sent out only 10 players on coverage units on multiple occasions. Baxter has removed this nonsense and put Michigan's special teams in position to succeed.
Are Michigan fans looking for payback after losing to Rutgers last season, or is that a fact most fans try and forget? What is the general feeling of the fanbase towards Rutgers being added to the Big Ten?
This isn't a payback game for Michigan. Most Michigan fans disregard last season as an aberration. It wasn't an outlier in that Michigan was bad because, unfortunately, the Wolverines haven't been very good for the past decade. It was an outlier in the sense that, once the Shane Morris concussion debacle occurred against Minnesota, the fans no longer cared about Michigan's record last season. All they cared about was that Michigan would terminate Brady Hoke and move in a different direction. And Michigan has done that with the hire of Jim Harbaugh.
Michigan fans weren't thrilled when the Big Ten added Rutgers and Maryland. I won't get into the financial aspect of the move, but, for me, it's disappointing that Michigan no longer will play some traditional Big Ten teams on a regular basis with the Scarlet Knights and Terrapins joining the Wolverines in the Big Ten East. The best example is Wisconsin. The last time that Michigan played Wisconsin was in 2010, and the last time Michigan played them in Madison was 2009. The Wolverines won't see them again until next season and won't travel to Madison until 2017. With a 12-team league, you couldn't go more than four years without playing a conference opponent. Though the shift to a nine-game conference schedule will help, you can go longer without seeing a conference opponent in a 14-team league. Just the way it is.
I have been to Ann Arbor years ago and it's one of the best college towns there is. Any recommendations for restaurants/bars and things to check out for Rutgers fans that are traveling out for the game?
MGoBlog's Brian Cook put together this wonderful guide of the best restaurants and bars in Ann Arbor, and it'll answer any questions that you may have. Cook is down on the restaurants on Main Street, such as Chop House, for being overrated and overpriced. I would disagree. Though those restaurants are pricey, I think those restaurants produce very good food. Also, I would add that Mr. Spots on State Street is a must-go if you're in the mood for some unhealthy food. Not only do they have great Philly cheesesteaks, they have amazing chicken wings.
What is your prediction for the game?
Michigan should win this in comfortable fashion. Rutgers' offense hasn't been great with the exception of Leonte Carroo, but he's questionable to play and won't be at full strength if he does. Without the threat of being beaten over the top that a healthy Carroo provides, I expect that Michigan's defense will stone most, if not all, of Rutgers' drives. On the other side of the ball, the Scarlet Knights have so many holes that I expect Michigan to turn this into a blowout even if Jake Rudock or Wilton Speight can't pick apart Rutgers' secondary. My prediction is that the Wolverines will run the ball often, control the pace of the game, and walk out of Michigan Stadium with a 35-7 victory.
I wanted to thank Drew again for taking the time to give us such insightful answers regarding the Michigan football team. To read my answers to Drew's questions, click here. Also Drew is a great follow on twitter!