ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan takes to the road this weekend, and it will play its first night game of the season when it faces Rutgers at 7 p.m. Saturday in Piscataway, N.J.
It’s only the third meeting between the two teams, not surprising given that Rutgers only began Big Ten play in 2014.
But if you’re into football history, you might know that Rutgers and Princeton were the first two college football teams in 1869, 10 years before Michigan fielded its first organized team in 1879. In a gesture of supremacy, Rutgers has big plans for Saturday’s prime-time game. Rutgers announced Monday that it will host “Stripe the Birthplace,” a nod to New Jersey as the cradle of college football.
Rutgers’ inauspicious start to the season, though, belies its history. The Scarlet Knights (2-3, 0-2 in the Big Ten), will face their third top-five opponent this season. Rutgers opened the season with a 48-13 loss at No. 5 Washington. A week after a 58-0 drubbing by No. 2 Ohio State, Rutgers now faces No. 4 Michigan (5-0, 2-0), which averages 44.4 points and has one of the Big Ten’s more efficient defenses.
Here’s what Michigan will need to focus on to prepare for the Scarlet Knights:
1. Protect the quarterback
Wisconsin sacked Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight four times; prior to last Saturday, Michigan had given up five sacks in its first four games. Rutgers may not have the same defensive prowess as the Badgers, but it has 11 sacks in its first five games — compared with Michigan’s conference-leading 20 — and defensive lineman Julian Pinnix-Odrick leads the Scarlet Knights with four sacks for a loss of 23 yards this season.
2. Have confidence in a retooled offensive line
Harbaugh said Monday that starting left tackle Grant Newsome will miss the rest of the season with an unspecified, but not career-ending, knee injury. A day later, Harbaugh reiterated that Juwann Bushell-Beatty will fill Newsome’s spot at left tackle. Michigan also has a contingency plan: If center Mason Cole moves to left tackle — his original spot on Michigan’s offensive line — Pat Kugler will fill in at center.
3. Right the ship when it comes to kicking
Michigan’s kickers are competing for the placekicking jobs this week, perhaps as you’re reading this. Following an 0-for-3 effort from Kenny Allen and Ryan Tice against Wisconsin, Michigan reopened its kicking competition, and could have a new placekicker against the Scarlet Knights. Bottom line: No matter the opponent, you can’t leave points on the field.
4. Don’t play down to the competition
For some teams, it’s easy to get sucked into the trap of plodding along against a team that isn’t up to par, skill-wise. But there’s a reason that Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh repeats his adage that every week is, somehow, a championship game. It’s about establishing a certain mindset and a certain level of preparation — despite the fact that Rutgers is 13th in the Big Ten in scoring offense (21.8 points a game), 14th in scoring defense (32.4 points), last in total offense (333 yards) and last in total defense (423.8). It’s a mismatch on paper, but Michigan isn’t treating it that way.
5. Don’t get too confident
It’s also easy to get caught in the trap of having an inflated sense of confidence following last Saturday’s 14-7 win against then-No. 8 Wisconsin, even if the Badgers proved to be a methodical — and, at times, tedious — team to create offense against and to play against. Amara Darboh’s fourth-quarter, go-ahead touchdown and Jourdan Lewis’ highlight-reel interception brought the Wolverines more national attention. But that falls into another facet of Harbaugh’s “championship game” philosophy: Don’t bask in the past.