Rutgers is set to face Michigan in the Big House. Homecoming, an early fall game in front of 104,000 fans all dressed in maize and blue. If you have never made the trip out to Ann Arbor, I highly suggest it. It is the kind of atmosphere that Rutgers fans dreamed of during the nomadic years as Big East and AAC football members. This Saturday is the day of dreams or nightmares depending on what happens on the field.
Like Rutgers, Michigan is 3-0 but has yet to be tested. It appears that both teams will be battling the elements as well as Saturday’s weather forecast calls for rain, potentially making a tall task even harder for RU.
Michigan hired six new assistant coaches this past offseason and fired defensive coordinator Don Brown who until the past few years was widely perceived as one of the top assistant coaches in the country. Lately, the Wolverine defense was not putting fear in the hearts of Big Ten offensive coordinators. They finished 84th nationally in total defense last season. Brown was replaced by Mike Macdonald who at the age of 33 had already worked under Harbaugh’s brother John for five years, most recently serving as linebackers coach with the Baltimore Ravens.
The offense is coached by Josh Gattis who is in his third season as offensive coordinator. But it is safe to say that Mike Hart, the running backs coach, and Matt Weiss, the quarterbacks coach, both have had a significant impact on the Wolverines offense in their first season with the program. Weiss, another former Ravens coach, ran offensive analytics under John Harbaugh, so the similarities to the Ravens offense is not coincidental. While Michigan averaged 30.6 points and 395.3 yards per game during the past two seasons, the philosophy has changed somewhat this season. This is attributable in part to the promotion of Sherrone Moore who was promoted from tight ends coach to co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach.
This Saturday, Michigan will rely on its running game to win the time of possession battle and attempt to wear out a Scarlet Knights defensive line that is thin on depth. Weeks ago, Gattis revealed that Michigan’s offensive identity will be predicated on being “physical, smart and precise.” The offense has been just that so far.
Michigan leads the nation in rushing behind Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins. Corum is a Heisman Trophy candidate rushing for 408 yards and averaging 8.5 yards per carry. Haskins has 281 yards rushing while averaging 5.7 yards per career. Like Rutgers, Michigan has 7-8 linemen that are used interchangeably. Michigan is far more adept in run blocking and if there is a susceptibility it is in pass blocking. Quarterback Cade McNamara hasn’t had to throw much through three games though and the wide receiver group is still shaking itself out after the loss of star Ronnie Bell due to a season ending injury.
The Wolverines defense has been revitalized under McDonald by simplifying coverage packages and most importantly disguising the defense to give help on the back end. The defense has showed significant improvement.
The Scarlet Knights will have to find an answer for Aidan Hutchinson who at 6’6” and 269 pounds is projected as an early round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. He already has 4.5 sacks per season. It is not just Hutchinson, however. The Wolverine defensive line brings speed, power and depth and is the engine that powers the defense.
The linebacking group is led by Josh Ross who leads the Wolverines in tackles once again. Michigan’s front four, which also will convert to a 3-4 base defense situationally during the game, has been effective in generating pressure. The defensive backfield returns all four starters from a year ago. Safeties Daxton Hill and Brad Hawkins earned honorable mention All-Big Ten nods last season but as a unit, interceptions and creating turnovers is not the hallmark of this group.
Michigan being Michigan, there is talent on both sides of the ball on the sidelines waiting for their time to come. The problem with Michigan during the Jim Harbaugh era has never been a lack of talent in order to be competitive in the Big Ten. The problem at times has been coaching and team chemistry. Well, it appears that both areas have been addressed, which is why Michigan is ranked No. 19 in both polls and almost a three touchdown favorite in this matchup.
Rutgers will have its hand full this Saturday. If the defense can generate pressure on Cade McNamara and create a few turnovers, this game could be much more interesting than the prognosticators believe.