The last time Rutgers and Michigan met before Saturday night was in Ann Arbor on the last weekend of September last season. The 52-0 loss turned out to be the last of the Chris Ash era, as one of the worst coaches in program history was fired the next day.
The two teams that met this season were both dramatically different. Michigan had lost three straight games entering this matchup and had been struggling on both sides of the ball. They couldn’t run and couldn’t stop the pass. Rutgers on the other hand, came into Saturday’s game as flawed team with plenty of heart but one week after a disappointing loss after leading by 10 points in the second half.
The matchup produced one of the most exciting games in college football this season that had national writers tweeting past midnight. Rutgers ultimately fell short in agonizing fashion, losing to Michigan 48-42 in triple overtime. After a 17-0 lead to begin the game, things shifted when the Wolverines pulled starting quarterback Joe Milton and inserted Cade McNamara. He finished the game completing 27 of 36 passes for 260 yards and four touchdowns. However, McNamara was not the only signal caller to have a great game.
Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral delivered his best performance this season by far, completing 29 of 43 passes for 378 yards, 3 touchdowns and a game ending interception. After Rutgers led 27-21 in the third quarter before surrendering two consecutive touchdowns, he orchestrated a 16 play, 75 yard drive that ended with him scrambling out of trouble and delivering a bullet to a covered receiver, Aron Cruickshank, who was able to make the catch for a game saving touchdown. Vedral then made a gutty run on a two point conversion to send the game into overtime.
After Michigan missed a field goal in the first overtime, their third miss of the game, the Scarlet Knights played for their own field goal attempt to win the game. They used third down to center the ball for kicker Valentino Ambrosio, but also lost a few yards in the process. Head coach Greg Schiano said after the game regarding the sequence that “We weren’t going to be overly aggressive, but they were plays that we felt were in range. And they did, it was third and six and then we just said, Let’s center it. That’s where Val wanted it, in the middle.” He continued, “And you know what? Sometimes you make them, sometimes you don’t. I definitely thought that that was in his range. It just wasn’t tonight. It wasn’t meant to be.”
Ambrosio’s kick from 45 yards out sailed just outside the left upright and sent the game into double overtime. A missed opportunity for sure.
Both teams scored touchdowns on the second drive, including a terrific play call by offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson that resulted in a 25 yard touchdown pass from Vedral to Jovani Haskins. However, Michigan answered and then scored a touchdown on its drive in triple overtime. Needing a touchdown to keep the game alive, the Rutgers offense finally ran out of gas as Vedral threw an interception on fourth down to seal the game for the Wolverines.
Rutgers continued to make too many mistakes to win on Saturday night. They committed 12 penalties for 99 yards, including the last one on a pass interference call on Avery Young that erased a upcoming fourth a long and instead set up a first down near the goal line that saw Michigan score the game winning touchdown. To Young’s credit, after Schiano was in his ear after the mistake, he made a big play to prevent Michigan from converting on the two-point conversion attempt two plays later.
The play calling was at times dazzling, mind blowing, aggressive, conservative and infuriating. Certainly more interesting and entertaining than in recent seasons.
There were blown coverages that resulted in Michigan touchdowns. The kickoff coverage unit allowed a touchdown to start the second half. Noah Vedral threw into double coverage in the end zone to running back Isaih Pacheco on fourth down and the game on the line when all he needed was a first down to stay alive.
All of those mistakes and others were too much to overcome, producing a second straight agonizing defeat in consecutive weeks for Rutgers football.
The loss to Michigan made me love this team even more.
This team played with guts, battled back through adversity and kept chopping. I’ve sat through weeks of Webex calls hearing many Rutgers players recite ode after ode to The importance of “chopping the moment”. This team has fully bought into what Schiano and the coaching staff preaches and it’s helped this group make major strides in a very short time.
Rutgers isn’t a good football team, but they are one that fans can be proud of once again.
The classic complaint after this loss was that some fans are tired of moral victories. Rutgers blew a chance to win the game and take down a blue blood, even if it was one having a down season.
Having the chance to beat Michigan and falling just short was and will always be a brutally painful pill to swallow. However, sometimes taking a step back and looking at things from a wider lense helps to properly process the full story. The loss doesn't erase the fact that this program is miles ahead of where it was one year ago.
Yes, this Michigan team isn’t nearly as good as in years past, but it is still a roster full of 4-star and 5-star recruits. The last five recruiting classes for Michigan were ranked in the top 3 in the Big Ten each cycle. The talent and depth level between the two teams on the field Saturday were still far apart. And yet, it was a dogfight until the bitter end.
Complain about moral victories, but Rutgers was the unquestioned worst power five program in college football the previous two seasons.
This team ended the embarrassing 21 game Big Ten losing streak on their first try. They were inches away from producing the greatest trick play possibly ever from losing to a legitimate top ten Indiana team by one score with a chance to recover the ball on an onside kick. They were one Artur Sitkowski fumble in the red zone away from losing to a legitimate top five Ohio State team by just two scores after losing by an average of 46.5 points in the previous six meetings since RU joined the Big Ten. Last week’s loss to Illinois was a kick to the face, especially after surrendering a 10 point second half lead and driving into Illinois territory with less than two minutes to play. However, that loss looks a lot better today after the Illini went to Nebraska and torched the Huskers 41-23.
The resurrection of Rutgers football, while still having a long way to go, has been a shocking turn of events for many who cover the Big Ten and college football across the national landscape. 2020 is all about living in a bubble, but perhaps Rutgers fans that are more upset than pleased with the way this season has gone so far should look around and see how much outside perception has changed for the positive in a very short time.
30 days ago when the season began, Rutgers was still considered the unquestioned worst power five team in the country. While they are not winners, they certainly have played football harder, with more purpose, and brought more excitement than this fan base has witnessed since the 2014 season. This team is relevant again.
The Scarlet Knights offense scored 51 points total in nine Big Ten games last season. They scored 42 in the loss to Michigan on Saturday and now average 30 points a game through five conference contests if you believe in rounding up. That’s not a moral victory, that’s dramatic statistical improvement.
They have now scored 20 or more points in all five Big Ten games this season. They accomplished the same five times in 36 games over the four previous seasons. That’s not a moral victory, that’s dramatic statistical improvement.
The defense has struggled at times, but they have also made far more big plays this season than in recent years. The defensive philosophy of Schiano and coordinator Robb Smith has brought a renewed mentality that the players have embraced.
Linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi is putting together a First Team All-Big Ten campaign and it’s something to appreciate. He led Rutgers with 16 tackles and two sacks on Saturday, becoming the first Scarlet Knight since Aaron Brady to produce 10 or more tackles in five consecutive games. His performance all season has been extraordinary to watch and He is exhibit A for how players can develop under Schiano and his coaching staff.
Exhibit B is Bo Melton, who had another big game with 7 catches, 109 yards that included a 61 yard touchdown. He now has six touchdowns in five games after scoring just twice in his previous 24 games to begin his Rutgers career.
There are less obvious examples from a statistical standpoint with returning players who have improved and made great strides this season, but Julius Turner, Avery Young, Tre Avery, Shameen Jones, and Raiqwon O’Neal are a few that stand out.
Regarding the loss, Schiano said “A bunch of guys went and really spilled their guts out there on the field. We’re not there yet. We’re just not quite there yet. We’ll keep chopping and keep working at what we do and we will get there. That’s why we’re all here together working as hard as we are. We just haven’t quite figured it out yet.” He added later, “I was really proud of the way that we approached the game.”
The absolute most important thing about the first year of Schiano’s second tenure was for a solid foundation to be laid by building a strong culture with an emphasis on player development. That is clearly happening and while in the moment, defeats like the one to Michigan on Saturday doesn’t hurt any less, the long term future of the program is moving down the right path. It may not be moving as fast as some want to, but for those that remember how things went during the first go around with Schiano, what we have seen so far this season gives every bit of confidence he will turn this program into a winner once again.