Rutgers heads to the Big House on Saturday to take on No. 19 Michigan in a battle of unbeaten teams. The Wolverines have started the season in impressive fashion and lead the nation in rushing, are third in scoring offense and ninth in scoring defense through three weeks. It is clear they are a far different team than the one that escaped last season’s meeting in Piscataway with a 48-42 triple overtime victory.
In order to find out more about this week’s opponent, I was fortunate to connect with Trevor Woods, who leads the football coverage at SB Nation’s Michigan site, Maize n Brew. We discussed the many offseason changes, the current state of the program and key factors in the matchup against Rutgers. Let’s kick things off here.
AB: Are you surprised with the start to this season for Michigan after the disappointing campaign a year ago along with an offseason that involved a lot of turnover of both the coaching staff and roster? Or did you have high expectations for the revamp that the program has undergone under Jim Harbaugh?
TW: I had much higher expectations because of all the staff changes Harbaugh made. Young hires (under 40), hungry coaches who want to ascend up the coaching ranks and becoming head coaches and coordinators. The coaches are getting the best out of their players, their energy has been contagious. As Greg Schiano pointed out Monday, the 2020 season was a distorted picture and both programs are different than they were a year ago — I agree with that assessment. No matter who wins and loses on Saturday, both teams are on the up and up.
AB: What is your biggest takeaway from the way Michigan performed in non-conference play?
TW: Fundamentally sound and physical football. Michigan’s offensive line looks the best it has been since 2016, the running back situation with Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins is the best of the Harbaugh era, and Cade McNamara looks like a competent quarterback. Defensively, they aren’t committing many penalties, the pass rush is getting home, and they are flying to the football.
Physicality and fundamentally sound football. Michigan didn’t make a lot of mistakes and they showed toughness and speed on both sides of the ball. A season ago Michigan’s defense rarely communicated in a cohesive fashion,
AB: What has been the key to Michigan’s success on the ground so far this season?
TW: It’s a combination of really good offensive line play and talented backs who have contrasting styles that compliment one another. Blake Corum has a little Christian McCaffrey to his game, and Hassan Haskins is a brute force runner with surprising shiftiness in the open field. There’s a reason they lead the nation in rushing, the entire operation is pretty impressive.
AB: Cade McNamara hasn’t needed to throw much through three games. Do you expect offensive coordinator Josh Gattis to open up the playbook more so in this Big Ten opener along with the fact that Rutgers will be short handed in the secondary?
TW: Great question — yes. I would expect Gattis’ to try to exploit some matchups with Max Melton being suspended. McNamara didn’t play full games against Western Michigan and Northern Illinois due to both games being blowouts, so his lack of passing is a little skewed. Further, his limited output of just 45 yards against Washington can be credited to Michigan rushing for north of 350 yards. McNamara has been decent to this point in the season, with Pro Football Focus ranking McNamara as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the Big Ten.
AB: What impact has new defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald made this season and do you think Michigan’s defense can prove to be an elite unit this fall?
TW: We just need more of a sample size to really know how good this defense is. Macdonald and the revamped defensive staff have definitely instilled a new mentality on that side of the ball, they’re communicating in ways they were not a year ago. Aidan Hutchinson has been an absolute monster rushing the passer, and the entire front-seven has made it difficult for opposing QBs to operate through three weeks. The tilt vs. Rutgers will be a good test to see if this is actually a good unit, or if it’s merely one who has feasted against lackluster opponents. How do they prove they’re elite? They need more time, more output. Everything has looked good so far, the entire operation — there aren’t any gaping holes to note as of now.
AB: How have special teams play been for Michigan this season and is this a matchup that Rutgers might have an advantage with?
TW: A.J. Henning made his debut as a punt returner a week ago and was electric, and kicker Jake Moody has looked rock solid. Special teams has been a strength for Michigan so far, continuing to put the offense in good field position, and converting field goals when they’re needed. Punting on the other hand, we need to see more there to know, Michigan didn’t punt against Northern Illinois!
AB: After needing triple overtime to beat Rutgers last season, how much do you think the players and coaches have heard about that from fans? Do you think there might be a little added juice to this game for Michigan due to last year, it being the Big Ten opener as well as Homecoming in Ann Arbor?
TW: There definitely was some shade thrown Michigan’s way. ‘Michigan almost lost to Rutgers’, ‘Michigan went to triple-overtime versus Rutgers’, but that type of thinking is a little shortsighted. Greg Schiano is doing his best to turn the program around, and the close game last year was no surprise to me. Michigan’s fully aware of how much of a battle it was last year, and I think they have a realization that they must come out and dominate from the opening kickoff. You do not want to keep it close against the improved Scarlet Knights.
AB: What is your prediction for the game?
TW: I’ve meant every complimentary thing I’ve said about Rutgers in this article, but I think their less than stellar offensive line play will continue and limit the production of Vedral, Pacheco, and company. And I believe the loss of Melton is a big blow to overcome and sets Michigan up to succeed through the air. Michigan should be able to have success rushing the football, and Michigan’s pass rush will get to Vedral. I don’t think this will be a close game, but my respect for Greg Schiano will remain the same. 51-17 Michigan.
Thanks to Trevor for giving such great insight on the current state of Michigan football. You can follow him on Twitter here and for consistent outstanding coverage on Michigan athletics, visit Maize n Brew. To read my answers to Trevor’s questions about Rutgers football, click here.