Rutgers football enters week 9 of the season riding a two game win streak after knocking off Illinois and Purdue in consecutive contests. October has brought renewed focus and confidence to the program, who now are set to face a major test this Saturday.
After a blowout loss to Penn State last week, Michigan is tied with Rutgers for fourth place in the Big Ten East midway through conference play. To those who made that prop bet before the season, well done. Rutgers is 1-2 against Michigan all-time, having won the first meeting at home in 2014, before losing by a combined score of 127-16 the past two seasons. One hope entering this season is that Rutgers would be much more competitive against the top four teams in the Big Ten East. They’ll have an opportunity to prove they really are much improved on Saturday in the Big House against the Wolverines.
I was fortunate to trade questions with Josh LaFond from SB Nation’s Michigan site, Maize N Brew. We discussed topics such as replacing their stacked defense from last season, quarterback troubles, how Michigan will likely attack on offense and even fun places to visit if you are attending the game. Let’s kick things off.
With so many players from last year's team off to the NFL, what were reasonable expectations entering this season? What is the pulse of the fan base right now and is Jim Harbaugh the long term answer in Ann Arbor?
JL: Expectations were all over the place. I thought this team had the legs to go 11-1 with a lone loss to Penn State. The vast majority, though, had this team at 10-2 or 9-3, obviously those records are still in reach.
As far as the vibe around Ann Arbor and within the fan base goes, there’s a lot of impatience. Can you blame them though? Michigan fans have been to hell and back during the last two regimes of Brady Hoke and Rich Rodriguez before him. To be honest though, no one should really be surprised at the Wolverines struggles this season. This was a team that lost over a dozen starters to the NFL and was going to have growing pains. Unfortunately, those growing pains have come against their second biggest rival in Michigan State, and a Penn State team who was out for blood.
The fact remains that there's NO ONE else for the job. There is no plan B, C, or D.. Jim Harbaugh is plan A-Z and Michigan isn’t going to deviate from that. His success has been proven at all levels of football whether as a player or coach and although patience is hard, it is a virtue. Keep in mind this is only year three of the Harbaugh era, things will get rolling in Ann Arbor very, VERY soon.
What are the biggest issues with the passing game and has John O'Korn been any better since taking over for Wilton Speight? Do you expect to see O'Korn start in this game?
JL: The lack of experience in the receiving core, and questionable play calls, by far. People will admit to the play calling issues but many don’t want to open their eyes to how big of a loss experienced guys like Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh were. What made this worse is that (True Freshman Wide Receiver) Tarik Black was injured -- for now what looks like will be the entire season -- against Air Force in week 3.
John O’Korn isn’t the reason the pass game has struggled this bad, it would be similar if not the same if Wilton Speight was still behind center. Speight and O’Korn are both good at each others weaknesses. Speight reads the defense, diagnoses blitzes, and makes the right decision much more so than O’Korn does. On the other hand, John O’Korn avoids the pass rush better by scrambling out of the pocket, and he can make the tough pass that Wilton Speight sometimes struggles with.
To answer the third part of your question, I do think O’Korn will start the game, but don’t be surprised to see (Redshirt Freshman QB) Brandon Peters get meaningful snaps throughout the game. This team has an opportunity to win 10 games and with some help, and I mean A LOT of help, they can still at least contend for the Big Ten East. For that very reason Jim Harbaugh isn’t going to thrust this team’s fate into the hands of a sparingly played Brandon Peters even though Peters is the future at the position.
Michigan has a good ground game and after what Purdue did to Rutgers last week (279 yards rushing), is it fair to expect a run heavy attack this week? How many backs do Michigan roll with and how are they different?
JL: I do think we will see a ground and pound attack, that’s Michigan’s bread and butter and for them to have success this season they need to get back to it.
Michigan has three very capable running backs in Karan Higdon, Chris Evans, and Ty Isaac. The one wild card though is (Redshirt Freshman RB) Kareem Walker. Walker got a lone carry against Indiana two weeks back, but reports of his improvement on the field and in learning the playbook have been strong. I would expect to see a heavy dose of the 3 former, and 5-7 carries by Walker sprinkled in.
Michigan lost almost their entire defense from last season to the NFL. Even so, they are currently first in the Big Ten against the pass and third against the run, as well as 14th in the country in S&P+. Who are the key players on defense and what was the biggest issue in their worst performance of the season against Penn State?
JL: (Defensive Tackle) Maurice Hurst, (Cornerback) LaVert Hill, and (Middle Linebacker) Devin Bush Jr. Hurst and Bush Jr. will cause havoc in the Rutgers backfield like they have to teams all year long, and with LaVert Hill seizing the heir apparent to the throne that former All-American CB Jourdan Lewis sat on last year, he should have no problem containing whatever receiver lines up across from him. My comments are not in any way a detriment to the Scarlet Knights, it just speaks to the talent that these 3 guys have.
In the Penn State game what happened far too often was matching up Linebacker Mike McCray on Heisman frontrunner Saquon Barkley. For all of McCray’s effort and heart, he isn’t the fastest or most athletic guy on the field. Credit to Nittany Lion head coach James Franklin and Joe Morehead, they both schemed that to their advantage and Michigan never adjusted properly.
Another issue that I will touch on quickly is the fact that they didn’t do a good job with keeping McSorley’s scrambles at bay. What zone defense does against a dual-threat QB like Trace McSorley is keep him contained without devoting a single individual to him like you would see in a traditional man-to-man coverage. In the man-to-man coverage the person that watches the QB -- for those who aren’t familiar with the term -- is called a Spy. Although a zone scheme would’ve been better in my opinion, the fact remains that neither of these were done enough at all, and it wound up biting them in the you know what.
How has special teams play been this season and who are key players to know?
JL: The special teams (for the most part) have been a strength. Field Goal Kicker Quinn Nordin has been automatic, the punt return and kick return game has been vastly improved than at the start of the year.
Keep an eye out for kickoff returner -- and cornerback -- Ambry Thomas (he sports the #1 jersey on defense). Donovan Peoples-Jones is an electric punt returner who has already taken one back to the house for a touchdown against the Air Force Falcons in week 3. Punter Brad Robbins has done an okay job but despite his flashes has been far too inconsistent for your liking, hopefully he can piece it all together.
Someone who I want to touch on who hasn't gotten near enough love is the kickoff man (yes, Michigan has 3 different starting special team kickers) James Foug. He is an asset for this team because instead of just booting through the back of the endzone like you might expect, Foug has the uncanny ability to place it wherever the game plan dictates it. He can put seconds of hang time on the ball which allows the coverage team to get down there, make the tackle, and take away any positive field position that might normally be gained. Keep your eyes peeled for him.
For Rutgers fans traveling to Ann Arbor for the game, any suggestions on places to visit this weekend?
JL: I’m a classic guy so I’ll suggest a few of my favorites. For a good meal that’s also a couple of Ann Arbor local’s favorites, be sure to hit up The Pretzel Bell, they feature comfort food and good drinks, it’s a must stop. Another favorite -- and one that a lot of Big Ten fans known about -- is Zingerman’s. Zingerman’s has some of THE best sandwiches that you will ever have, thousands swear by it.
For a sweet treat swing by Washtenaw Dairy, they have arguably the best donuts around, and the ice cream is pretty dang good too.
What is your prediction for the game?
JL: Although Rutgers has improved since their last matchup with Michigan, I expect the Wolverines to come out on Saturday ticked off after their lackluster performance against Penn State. Chris Ash is doing a fantastic job to date of helping rebuild the Scarlet Knights, but I don’t think they have enough speed or talent yet to contend against this Wolverine team.
Michigan will try to run the ball early and set up the play action pass, and I see them having success doing that. Rutgers should move the ball a little better than they did last year, but outside of Penn State and maybe Ohio State later in the year, it’s going to be tough for teams to drive down the field on them and I don’t think they’ll have too much success doing so.
On homecoming weekend the Wolverines get up big before the half and stay up. Michigan wins it 42-7.
Thanks to Josh for giving us great insight on the current state of Michigan football. You can follow him on twitter here and for more coverage on Michigan, visit Maize N Brew. To read my answers to Josh’s questions on Rutgers football, click here.