Michigan Monday: Running On Empty?

The Michigan Wolverines moved to 4-0 on the season thanks to a 20-13 win over Rutgers on Saturday. It was much more of a struggle than people expected, but maybe that says more about Rutgers than Michigan.

Or maybe not.

After all, if we’re going to take a critical look at Michigan, we have to be critical, right?

The Wolverines came into this game leading the nation in rushing at 350 yards per game. Rutgers held them to less than a third of that, allowing just 112 yards on the ground. It was the first time this year that we saw somebody make Michigan bleed their own blood and I don’t think they liked it.

They also didn’t buckle.

The Wolverines were shut down in the second half offensively but were still able to answer the call defensively late in the fourth quarter when it counted the most.

There was nothing pretty about this win for Michigan, but notches on belts don’t have scores on them. The Wolverines are 4-0 overall and 1-0 in conference play. That’s all that matters.

Until now.

Now what matters is how they respond to being exposed for all to see. Will they hide their shame or will it wake them up.

And when I say “exposed,” that’s not saying Michigan is a fraud. They beat a well-coached conference team, that’s not nothing. But we finally saw some cracks on the Wolverines’ windshield. And like any windshield crack, if you don’t do something about it immediately, it will only get worse as the weather gets colder.

When Michigan Was On Offense

Running back Blake Corum failed to rush for 100 yards in a game for the first time this season. Rutgers held him to 68 yards on 21 carries (3.2 ypc), and a long rush of just 13 yards. They contained him incredibly well, but Michigan probably could have been more exotic in how they got him the ball. They did involve him in the passing game (2 recs., 11 yds), but this was a disappointing between-the-tackles attack overall.

Hassan Haskins was no more effective, averaging 3.4 yards per carry on his 12 attempts.

The offensive line can only do some much when the middle of the line of scrimmage is just gummed up with 72 bodies. It only takes one cyclist at the front of the pack to faceplant and create a pile up. Corum and Haskins were asked to ride through most of those pileups on Saturday but there was nowhere really to go.

Rutgers also did a solid job in the second half of bringing extra bodies into the picture at the snap.

The Wolverines started out well enough, rushing for 67 yards on 16 attempts in the first quarter. However, 64 of those yards came on the first drive, which ended in a touchdown. Following that first drive, Michigan would go on to produce just 48 yards on the ground (23 atts) the rest of the game.

They converted all four of their third-down attempts in the first quarter but went 0-for-7 the rest of the game.

Cade McNamara was the only quarterback who played for Michigan, which further establishes his security for the moment. He completed 9-of-16 passes for 163 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. He had long passes of 51 and 38 yards, but both were relatively shallow crossing routes that went for significant gains.

Despite that security, however, Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis did not express much confidence in him. Throws were safe — which is fine, but in the second half when Michigan couldn’t run the ball, they didn’t really try to open things up with the pass.

I also didn’t like that Michigan chose not to throw the ball into the end zone at the end of the first half. Rather than try one more throw into the end zone with five seconds remaining in the first half from the 3-yard line, Harbaugh chose to kick a field goal. I get wanting to go up 20-3, which they did, I just think there was enough time for something quick. But I may be pushing it.

To Rutgers’ credit, they had very little fear of the pass in this game. Eventually, the Wolverines are going to have to make defenses pay for their lack of faith.

McNamara threw just four passes beyond 10 yards against Rutgers, completing two of them. His longest completion traveled about 16 yards downfield.

Defenses don’t need to put eight in the box just to stop the run. With the way Michigan is throwing the ball, they can also use those eight to stop the pass.

It may be a chicken-or-the-egg kind of thing when it comes to throwing the ball downfield, however. Is it not happening because of the receivers or the quarterback? If it’s both, then that’s bad. Both positions will need to step up — and they’ve both had their moments this season. They need to be consistent, but that’s also where McNamara comes in because his downfield passing has been questionable from game to game.

I like the way they continue to use inside receivers AJ Henning, Roman Wilson, and Mike Sainristil on shorter stuff, but Michigan can’t keep counting on them to turn small plays into big plays. Eventually they need their outside receivers to turn big plays into big plays every single week.

McNamara wasn’t sacked and wasn’t pressured all the much, but it sure seemed like he was uncomfortable for much of the game.

When Michigan Was On Defense

Rutgers had arguably their best rushing day of the season so far. One week after averaging 4.3 yards per carry against Delaware, the Scarlet Knights averaged 4.7 yards per carry against Michigan. Two weeks ago, Rutgers managed 50 yards rushing on 42 attempts against Syracuse. Against the Wolverines, however, Greg Schiano’s team rushed for 196 yards on 42 attempts.

The 4.7 yards per carry were their most this season, even topping the 4.3 yards per carry they had in the season opener against Temple.

Saturday was just the fourth time in the last four seasons that Rutgers averaged better than 4.6 yards per carry against a Big Ten opponent. (They have done it against Michigan twice in those four seasons.)

Holding a team to 4.7 yards per carry isn’t terrible, but it’s also not very good. It’s made worse by the fact that the longest rush of the day was just 26 yards. Rutgers was getting consistent gains. Nothing big, but enough to produce 13 first downs on the ground.

Michigan heads to Wisconsin this weekend and I’m guessing it opened up the Badgers’ eyes to see Michigan giving up nearly 200 yards on the ground. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, they don’t have the passing game of mighty Rutgers to complement their offense.

Scarlet Knights quarterback Noah Vedral is a dual-threat quarterback in that he is asked to run the ball and he doesn’t say no. He is effective enough to be an annoyance for defenders. Vedral rushed for 46 yards on 11 carries and completed 18-of-31 pass attempts for 156 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked once by Aidan Hutchinson, as are all quarterbacks this season.

Rutgers didn’t really do much attacking down the field. It was a very conservative approach all the way around. At times it was like watching a poker game between two players who took turns folding without ever looking at their cards. At the end, Rutgers’ bluff got called and Michigan’s defense forced a fumble on the Scarlet Knights’ final drive to seal the game.

Rutgers outscored Michigan 10-0 in the second half, but they had the opportunity for more. The Scarlet Knights had six possessions in the second half. The first one was a three-and-out, but the second drive went 91 yards in 12 plays for a touchdowns. The next drive went 58 yards and made it inside the Michigan 10-yard line, but ended in a field goal. The next drive made it to the Michigan 11-yard line and ended in a missed field goal. The drive after that one ended on downs at Michigan’s 38-yard line.

The Wolverines bent but they didn’t break, and they did that in the second half without starting linebacker Josh Ross who left the game with an injury. He may or may not be back this week, but Michigan got some solid play from the younger linebackers in Ross’ absence.

With Wisconsin on deck, getting Ross back sooner rather than later would be preferred. Fortunately for the Wolverines, they won’t be facing your typical Badger running attack. Those days seemingly left when Jonathan Taylor went to the NFL.

It will be very interesting to see what Wisconsin does on the ground next week because they went for 180 against Penn State — but only averaged 3.1 yards per carry, and 74 yards against Notre Dame (2.6 ypc). If they run the ball like Rutgers or better than Rutgers, then that will give us a pretty good idea that this Michigan run defense could be an issue.

The Michigan Special Teams

The Michigan special teams had their ups and downs. Kicker Jake Moody missed a 47-yard field goal inside of two minutes that could have sealed the deal. Punter Brad Robbins put two of his five punts inside the 20-yard line, but only averaged 40.8 yards per kick on the day.

AJ Henning returned a punt 29 yards. It’s just a matter of time for him. He’s an explosive play-maker and the more times he touches the ball, the better it is for Michigan. (But if they want to continue to try to throw the ball to a converted offensive lineman instead of giving it to Henning, who am I to tell them what to do?)

What Does It All Mean?

It means that Michigan bleeds. Not that we didn’t think they wouldn’t, but the way they were running the ball before this game was impressive and meaningful. The question was just how much meaning.

So now the real Michigan offense has to stand up. Is it the devastating one-two punch-and-kick of Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum, or is it the even-more-timid-than-usual ball-control offense we saw on Saturday? Were things buttoned up more because Michigan was finally up against a quality-ish opponent? Or did Rutgers do the buttoning up, followed by a little slap on the face for good measure?

I feel like we got some new information about Michigan’s offense, but I don’t know how much we actually learned. We knew they weren’t going to rush for 350 yards a game in Big Ten play, so this game confirmed some of what we already knew. But I’m also not ready to declare this Michigan offense as the offense we will see the rest of the season.

But it could be.

Rutgers had three games of film to prepare for defensively and it looks like that time was put to good use. If Michigan doesn’t do something differently — or simply do the same thing better than they did against Rutgers, we will continue to see more Wolverine struggles on offense.

It also means that Michigan’s defense better get ready for business to pick up.

What happens when a quarterback has a good game against this defense? The pass rush hasn’t been great. Can Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz (or Chase Wolf) just not be his own worst enemy? What about the next week at Nebraska? What kind of troubles will Adrian Martinez give the Wolverines. Those are two quarterbacks who have shown their imperfections throughout their respective careers, but they have also shown they are capable of a random performance that is good enough to win with.

This is life in the Big Ten this year and Michigan now knows that. They came out of their first scuffle with a win, but you can’t always count on the opposing team to give you a free possession at the end of the first half, miss a short field goal in the second half, and then fumble away their final possession of a one-score game.

But maybe this was just one of those random games that ends up being more difficult than it needs to be. We won’t know that answer until later on this season.

Or maybe later on this week.

If Jim Harbaugh plans to win every game the same way they beat Rutgers, he’s going to come up short more than once this year. And very likely more than twice. Winning the surest way means different things to different people, but if this is the only way that Michigan can win, they’re going to have a very tough time contending for the Big Ten title this season.

Clearly, Michigan has flaws, but there are no perfect teams this year. Nobody in the Big Ten right now is above losing to any of the top eight or nine teams in the conference, but it’s time for the Wolverines to start separating themselves from the pack, rather than staying mired in it.

The Road To The Game

Sept 4 – Michigan 47 – Western Michigan 14 (1-0)
Sept 11 – Michigan 31 – Washington 10 (2-0)
Sept 18 – Michigan 63 – Northern Illinois 10 (3-0)
Sept 25 – Michigan 20 – Rutgers 13 (4-0, 1-0)
Oct 2 at Wisconsin
Oct 9 at Nebraska
Oct 23 vs Northwestern
Oct 30 at Michigan State
Nov 6 vs Indiana
Nov 13 at Penn State
Nov 20 at Maryland
Nov 27 vs Ohio State