It wasn’t an against-all-odds story. Michigan, like most Big Ten teams, was supposed to roll Rutgers with ease Saturday.
However, following a week of panic from its fan base centered around an underperforming head coach’s tenure, a 52-0 drubbing in a nearly flawless effort is a positive step in the right direction.
Following U-M’s 35-14 loss at Wisconsin, senior tight end Nick Eubanks emphasized the team’s lack of identity. A week later, it seems the Wolverines are inching towards that missing component.
Every national power has an identity.
Ohio State has a high-powered offense. Wisconsin plays tough. Alabama is all-out aggressive. Oklahoma is an offensive juggernaut. Clemson is the most balanced team in the country.
After Wisconsin, Michigan’s national identity was simply losing to each highly-ranked team it faces away from home, especially as an underdog.
While the big picture identity is yet to receive its makeover. The here and now curated an identity of getting the ball in space — pun intended — and bringing constant pressure on the defense.
Tempered reactions are justified. After all, Chris Ash’s Rutgers is an easier slider than Madden 20’s Rookie Mode. But a week after U-M was embarrassed on the national stage, it responded with authority.
It was offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ first appearance on the sidelines, moving down from the booth. In turn, U-M delivered its most impressive offensive performance of the season.
Senior quarterback Shea Patterson showed why his coaches still trust him despite widespread criticism dating back to the end of last season. He tied Jim Harbaugh’s statistic of four games with more than 250 yards passing while at Michigan. Patterson chucked for 276 yards and four total touchdowns (one passing, three rushing) in only three quarters of play. Something he hasn’t done enough is spread the ball out in this new offense. He changed that narrative by dishing it out to six different receivers, including five with multiple catches.
Patterson started off eight-of-nine passing, including a 40-yard touchdown to junior wideout Nico Collins. He was finding junior wideout Donovan Peoples-Jones in space — that’s right, IN SPACE! — and helped him get to 62 yards receiving on four catches. He didn’t slow down his chemistry with slot-man Ronnie Bell, though, who led the team in targets (8), catches (6), and yards (83).
Sometimes stats don’t tell the full tale. Maybe those numbers aren’t convincing enough. But the eye test proved Patterson brought his best stuff on Saturday. Whether that holds up against a team like Iowa that beat down Rutgers two weeks ago remains to be seen. But Michigan will only go as far as Patterson takes it.
Defensively, Don Brown’s unit got back to its old ways, bringing pressure in different ways early and often. It was easily the defense’s most flawless performance, totaling four QB hits, six tackles for loss, a forced fumble, and two sacks. Not to mention, a shutout, the first since Michigan beat Rutgers 78-0 in 2016.
Fast to the ball and giving Rutgers quarterback Artur Sitkowski no time in the pocket, Michigan showed its potential is still trending upwards defensively. Including showcasing two underclassmen who look primed to take snaps away from upperclassmen going forward.
In junior MIKE backer Josh Ross’s absence, redshirt freshman Cam McGrone was an absolute stud. Despite the stat sheet not reflecting it — McGrone had one tackle and one QB hit — he was far-and-away the defense’s anchor, showing the speed and violence of former MIKE linebacker Devin Bush. True freshman Dax Hill (four tackles, 0.5 TFL) was all over the place, making plays on defense and special teams. Both delivered performances convincing enough to start the rest of the way.
Michigan did what it was supposed to with a bit more flare coming off an abysmal week.
Again, tempered reactions are justified but there’s no denying the Wolverines reflected more fight, fewer mistakes, and an offensive rhythm for the first time.
This game doesn’t change the trajectory of the season. It doesn’t win you the Big Ten East. And it sure as hell doesn’t change the big-game narrative that haunts this program under Jim Harbaugh.
But it offers encouragement and a deep breath. There’s a lot more football to be played.
Michigan ain’t dead yet.