I’ve heard people say that the best way to find a good place to eat on vacation is to strike up a conversation with a local. Judging by the above photo, the locals know their Rutgers football. Rutgers put their best into this game for a certain definition of “best,” even digging a trick play out of the back of the book and deploying it late in the third quarter for a 19-yard gain on a QB-RB-QB connection. Had they scored, Rutgers would have pulled within 14. On the next play, they tried to give Michigan’s defense whiplash with a Wildcat look; Raheem Blackshear’s handoff went off the side of Isaih Pacheco, Michigan recovered the fumble, and the game was essentially over.
It took Michigan five plays to score after the fumble recovery, a touchdown that took the game from essentially to emphatically over. Four straight handoffs to Tru Wilson moved Michigan from the Rutgers 42- to their 10-yard line, at which point a beautiful backshoulder throw to Nico Collins put Michigan up 35-7. This was just one of Shea Patterson’s many inch-perfect throws on the night, which ended for him (and most of the other starters) at the conclusion of the third quarter. The offensive line should get credit for some of Patterson’s on-the-money deep shots, as they gave Patterson as much time to throw as he’s had at any point in his Michigan career and were a significant factor in Patterson finishing 18-of-27 for 260 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
The run game had a quizzical outing, especially when considering how well Michigan’s line held up in pass protection and the trajectory the running backs had been on. Michigan ran the ball 40 times for a sack-adjusted 199 yards, or 4.98 yards per carry. Chris Evans, however, was responsible for 61 yards on a single carry, taking the first handoff of the fourth quarter and the first snap of Brandon Peters’ night through the middle of the line and past Rutgers’ secondary to the end zone. Removing Evans’ carry, Michigan rushed for just 3.54 yards per carry.
[After THE JUMP: how Michigan avoided the Golden Idol of trap games]
It seems that this was just a weird game for rushing, as Rutgers finished with 33 carries for an expectation-shattering 193 yards. Rutgers’ run game was responsible for the most surprising moment of the game, an Isaih Pacheco 80-yard carry on which Devin Gil got sealed inside by a guard while Chase Winovich and Tyree Kinnel widened to cover end-around action. Pacheco found the cutback lane, and the end of the first quarter finished tied at 7.
Michigan responded with a 12-play, 65-yard drive, but even that drive had a moment that gave this game the aura of a possible trap. Ben Mason appeared to convert a 3rd-and-1 before stopping his forward progress, moving backward, and attempting to loop around the end of the line to daylight. A jersey pull ended up bringing him down, but a nice lead block from Mason on 4th-and-1 gave Karan Higdon the room he needed to get the first down and then some. Higdon finished the drive with a one-yard touchdown, breaking 1,000 yards on the season this afternoon and finishing the game with 15 carries for 42 yards and two touchdowns.
The offense cruised from there, finishing the first half with another Patterson-to-Collins touchdown and a 21-7 lead. They continued the tear in the second half, scoring on three of their first four possessions. The offense only had the ball for two full drives in the fourth quarter, and one of those was the one-play Chris Evans touchdown drive. Harbaugh and company did alternate backup quarterbacks and effectively obfuscate that situation in said quarter, first sending out Brandon Peters, then Joe Milton the next drive, then Michael Sessa for a snap, then Milton once again to end the game.
Not to be outdone, Michigan’s defense recovered from the one bad thing and shut Rutgers down until the one garbage time drive that all teams seem to be getting treated to this season. Ignoring their one-play, 80-yard scoring drive, Rutgers had no drives longer than seven plays for 38 yards going into the fourth quarter. Even their single long drive, which lasted 12 plays and ate up almost six minutes of the fourth quarter, petered out after 38 yards when Ambry Thomas read Artur Sitkowski’s eyes and jumped a route for an interception.
Though it didn’t reach the cannon-silencing levels of 2016’s 78-0 drubbing, Michigan got in some quality pass-pro reps while further developing timing between Patterson and his receivers against Rutgers’ best unit. Michigan also managed to take control of the game without having to put anything new on film and without much risk to their offense, with the threat of injury to Patterson on a true zone read far greater than the threat of him actually pulling it and taking off.
Michigan’s defense didn’t fare so well. Though they were able to dismantle Rutgers’ screen-centric gameplan, they lost two players to injury in the course of the game, with another two key pieces unexpectedly sidelined for the game. Lavert Hill and Kwity Paye both left the game and headed to the locker room; Harbaugh said afterwards that Hill is in concussion protocol and that he wasn’t sure about Paye’s situation. Aubrey Solomon and Josh Metellus never entered the game, as Metellus is currently working through a soft-tissue injury and Solomon was sick last week.
The Golden Idol of trap games has been avoided, but Michigan will have to maintain their resolve for one more week with Indiana headed to town. Is there a way to make the Revenge Tour include former coordinators? Could someone give the current players a crash course in why zone left makes the teeth grit and the fists clench in Michigan fans of the late Carr era?