ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When Michigan and Rutgers kick off Saturday night in northern New Jersey, it will be a meeting of two of college footballs oldest programs. Yet on paper, it’s a lopsided matchup.
No. 4-Michigan (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) enters High Point Solutions Stadium ranked fifth in the nation in total defense (247.6 yards) and locked into the top five in the Associated Press top 25 poll.
Meanwhile, Rutgers (2-3, 0-2) is going through growing pains under first-year head coach Chris Ash. The Scarlet Knights lost 58-0 last Saturday to No. 2 Ohio State in Columbus, lost its top receiver to a season-ending injury and is at or near the bottom of the Big Ten in several statistical categories.
This will only be the third meeting between the Wolverines and the Scarlet Knights, who began Big Ten Conference play in 2014. The series is tied 1-1.
Q: How does Rutgers rebound/recover/regroup after a 58-0 loss to Ohio State, and how does Rutgers prepare to face another top-five team in Michigan?
Dunleavy: It’s a young season, but Rutgers has been in this position before. After opening the season with a 48-13 loss at Washington, Rutgers bounced back with wins against Howard and New Mexico. In fact, Rutgers isn’t just the only team in the nation that will have faced three of the current top-five ranked teams after this week — it’s the only team that will have faced even two. To me, it’s not about how Rutgers regroups: The players will be fired up for Michigan under the lights after beating the Wolverines at home in primetime in 2014. It’s about the talent gap — and it’s a big one in favor of Michigan. Especially once you get beyond the starters.
Q: Who are two key players — one offense, one defense — Michigan should keep an eye on, and why?
Dunleavy: Rutgers will play the rest of the season without its top playmaker Janarion Grant, who could catch, run and throw touchdowns on offense and was tied for the NCAA career lead with eight special-teams returns for touchdowns when he suffered a season-ending injury. In its first game without Grant, Rutgers completed just three passes (none after the first quarter) against Ohio State. All three went to Jawuan Harris, who has taken over Grant’s role in the slot and on bubble screens, as well as on punt returns. Harris is a multi-sport athlete who led the Big Ten in stolen bases as a true freshman center fielder last spring for the Rutgers baseball team. On defense, Darius Hamilton is a former five-star recruit and a 2014 All-Big Ten Honorable Mention selection. He missed 11 of 12 games last season with a knee injury, finally appeared to be back at full strength with a career-high 10 tackles against New Mexico on Sept. 17, and then was re-injured against Iowa. He shut it down against Ohio State once the score became a blowout, but he can wreck a game if he is healthy — and he is said to be healthy for kickoff against Michigan.
Q: What is Chris Ash’s long-term goal at Rutgers for the football program?
Dunleavy: Like any coach, Chris Ash’s goal is to win big. He hasn’t used the word “championships” yet, like former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano used to throw around. But Ash made it no secret that he wants to build a program that can compete with Ohio State and Michigan. In the short-term, he has overhauled the football facility lobby, the focus of the strength and conditioning program, and just about everything in between — all with the influence of mentor and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer on his mind. The real long-term goal has to be increasing the recruiting victories. Schiano finally was winning more in-state battles for top recruits than he lost before he left Rutgers in 2012. Under former coach Kyle Flood, in-state recruiting took a huge step backward — just look at Michigan’s roster with Jabrill Peppers, Rashan Gary, Juwann Bushell Beaty and more. Ash is off to a good start, with commitments from the top-ranked in-state quarterback, running back, wide receiver and offensive lineman. But Rome wasn’t built with one recruiting class.
Q: And given that Rutgers has lopsided losses to a pair of top-5 teams (Washington and Ohio State), how can those be used as building blocks for this year’s team and the future of the program?
Dunleavy: Rutgers is selling it as “Come here to play the best of the best” in recruiting. In the short-term, it’s a benefit because a first-year coaching staff has a true barometer of where the team is compared to what it wants to be in the future. While rival Maryland is off to a 4-0 start (important for bowl eligibility) under first-year coach D.J. Durkin, the Terps haven’t faced a ranked opponent yet. So what do we really know about them other than they are significantly better than Purdue? Rutgers doesn’t face a ranked team over its final six games of the season, so it should be able to attack those games with a mind-set that its players already have seen better competition and know what works and what doesn’t.
Q. Much has been made of a budding rivalry off the field between Rutgers and Michigan with New Jersey being a recruiting hotbed and Jim Harbaugh’s foray into satellite camps in the state. Do you see this becoming a long-term rivalry, or is it way too early to even peg this as a rivalry?
Dunleavy: Here’s what’s funny: Rutgers and Michigan are the oldest two FBS programs in the nation, with roots to 1869 and 1879, respectively. That could be a nice undertone for a rivalry, right? Except their shared history ends there. Rutgers didn’t make a move to play big-time college football until the 1980s (joining the Big East in 1991) while Michigan has Michigan’s illustrious history. So it’s way, way, way too early to peg it as a rivalry. Especially when Michigan has established rivalries with Ohio State, Michigan State and Minnesota. That said, what does it take to start a rivalry? Some upsets, some butting heads. Well, Rutgers is 1-1 all-time vs. Michigan after the 2014 win. An upset here would be national news. As for the butting heads, you nailed it. Rutgers and Michigan are going to be competing for a lot of the same talent in New Jersey — especially at powerhouse Paramus Catholic High School — and it was no accident that Rutgers scheduled a recruiting satellite camp with Meyer, Schiano and the rest of Ohio State on the same night last June that Harbaugh was the centerpiece of a camp at Paramus Catholic. So maybe this rivalry can grow faster than you think. Same could be said for Rutgers-Penn State if the Scarlet Knights get a win in that series soon.