Michigan 31, Rutgers 7

Michigan 31, Rutgers 7

September 24, 2023
Mike Sainristil (image via MGoBlue)

Different game, same result. Michigan has started this season with some remarkable consistency, if a lack of explosiveness. The Wolverines beat the Scarlet Knights, a Big Ten team, by a 24-point margin a week after beating BGSU, a MAC team, by 25 points. That came a week after a 28-point win over UNLV, which followed a 27-point victory over ECU. Michigan points, from week one onward: 30, 35, 31, 31. Opponent points: 3, 7, 6, 7. Michigan now leads the country in scoring defense, giving up just 5.8 points per contest. Oklahoma and Ohio State are tied for #2 at 8.5 points allowed per game.

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Something is missing from Michigan’s defense, though. Allowing 5.8 points per game is certainly not sustainable throughout the rest of the season, so the non-conference schedule difficulty is certainly playing a part. (Alabama’s 2011 defense allowed 8.2 points per game, the lowest number of the past fifteen seasons.) Playing three patsies and then Rutgers to start the year doesn’t provide much of a test. But Michigan does seem to be lacking some of the speed and playmaking ability of more recent units. I think cornerback Josh Wallace is definitely a downgrade from D.J. Turner II, and the lack of an explosive pass rusher continues to be a concern. Michigan is tied for #62 in sacks (9 so far), so unless the Wolverines can find a more consistent way to rush the passer, the secondary is going to really be tested by teams with better quarterbacks, such as Penn State, Maryland, and Ohio State.

Something is missing from Donovan Edwards, too. Four games into the year, do-it-all back Donovan Edwards is really only doing stuff in the receiving game. He had 6 carries for just 13 yards in this one and is averaging 3.3 yards per carry on the year. He has yet to score a touchdown this season. In this particular game, he seemed hesitant to hit the hole at times and showed some really odd vision. Rutgers does have a solid defense, but Blake Corum had 21 carries for 97 yards (4.6 yards/carry) and 2 touchdowns. It’s rare that a running back truly seems to be in a funk – unless you’re talking about aging NFL backs – but so far this season, this is probably the most inexplicable drop-off in production since Ricky Powers in the early 1990s. (Powers averaged 4.9, 5.2, and 4.8 yards/carry in his first three years before dropping to 3.6 yards/carry as a senior in 1993.) There’s still a lot of time left for him to find his rhythm, but it’s been a little ugly so far. In the off-season, we were counting on him leaving for the NFL after 2023, but he’s not going to garner much high-round interest unless he improves his play and his production.

I secretly like Rutgers. Okay, don’t get me wrong. I went to their stadium and it sucked. And I don’t like Greg Schiano. And I don’t want Rutgers to actually become any kind of power. But they’re kind of a fun team to watch under Schiano. They play aggressive, scrappy defense and they’re willing to do different things on offense, because they know they don’t have the guys to actually win big matchups. If you gave former offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson a chance with better talent, I bet they could have had some explosive games, but he had Noah Vedral at quarterback. Now there’s a decent quarterback in Gavin Wimsatt, but the overall talent is just so-so. Rutgers might be kind of the new Northwestern in that they’re not actually good, but they’re good enough to scare you a little bit.

Mike Sainristil earned the Honorary De’Veon Smith Award for Disappearing Before Scoring a Touchdown. Sainristil got burned early on for a 69-yard touchdown by Christian Dremel when the former slipped and blew the coverage, but Sainristil made up for it later by intercepting a screen on 4th-and-1 and returning it for a score. I really had no idea where the ball was once Wimsatt threw it, but it looked like one of those catches that ends up in dual possession with the tie going to the offense . . . or maybe it got batted to the ground . . . or maybe it got tipped and ended up in a lineman’s hands . . . but then Sainristil appeared, racing 71 yards for the score to really put the game away and take a 24-7 lead. It was a great read and break by Sainristil, and then he showed excellent balance to avoid going down to a knee before creeping out of the morass and into the open field.

Figure out the kickoff return unit. Maybe this is analytics or something, but BGSU and now Rutgers have started taking advantage of Michigan’s kickoff return team. Last week it was a fumble from Max Bredeson and a muffed kick by Braiden McGregor. This week it was a muffed kick from Semaj Morgan (returned for 8 yards) and a pooch kick to walk-on Joe Taylor (returned for 13 yards). Michigan is now #120 in kickoff return average (14.4 yards/return). Personally, I think the best answer might be the slumping guy mentioned above – one Donovan Edwards – but that’s probably unlikely to happen. Regardless, nobody wants to see Bredeson, McGregor, and Taylor returning kicks for the University of Michigan. The odd thing is that teams are kicking away from the primary returner when Michigan doesn’t really have anyone scary returning kicks. I guess 6’2″, 239 lb. former linebacker Kalel Mullings lined up deep is putting the fear of God into opposing kickoff units, because nobody wants to kick to him. Hell, what would it look like if Jim Harbaugh put Alex Orji, the best kick returner of all-time, back there to receive? Opponents might just kick it out of bounds every time.

Offensive stuff. I don’t chart this kind of thing, but it sure seemed like Michigan latched onto an unbalanced look for a huge chunk of this game. They used what’s called a “nasty” split between the strongside offensive tackle and the tight end, plugging an H-back in between them. And they would have two unbalanced receivers over on the strongside, leaving the slot receiver ineligible. It was not a new formation for them, but they did seem to use it more than normal.

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