A real barn-burner in store for us on Saturday night with a pair of teams in the Michigan Wolverines and Rutgers Scarlet Knights who both have dropped three straight games since winning their opening contest.
Seems like forever ago that we were singing the praises of this Michigan offense after the Wolverines' dominant performance in the opener against Minnesota. Since then, nothing has gone right as they've averaged just 18.7 points in the last three games and sit 10th in the Big Ten in total defense, allowing 425.8 yards per game. The bottom fell out last week as the Wolverines were not competitive in a 49-11 blowout to Wisconsin.
The Scarlet Knights have also lost their last three games, with last week coming in heartbreak fashion as they blew a fourth-quarter lead to Illinois and lost by a last-second field goal. Costly mistakes and missed opportunities cost this Rutgers team under first-year head coach Greg Schiano, highlighted by quarterback Noah Vedral's three interceptions, and the offense sputtered in the first half inside the red zone, having to settle for field goals.
Eliminate those mistakes, and this is Rutgers' best chance at knocking off the Wolverines in a long time. They've only beaten Michigan once before — in their first-ever game in 2014.
Michigan at Rutgers
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 21 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Michigan -10.5
When Michigan Has the Ball
The Wolverines have to find some semblance of the rushing attack with the quarterback position in flux. Michigan has mostly used a by-committee approach at running back, but 2020 is taking it to a whole other level with four different backs are seeing considerable playing time — none of whom have been that successful, as the Wolverines rank 106th nationally at 117 rushing yards per game.
This is due in part to trailing for the better part of the last two games, but there has been zero consistency in the Michigan backfield to help out their inexperienced quarterback. Rutgers ranks ninth in the Big Ten in run defense and is getting excellent play from linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi and safety Christian Izien, who have combined for 56 tackles.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh said this week he will be splitting first-team reps at quarterback in practice with starter Joe Milton struggling of late. Blame the coaching staff if you'd like for not putting players in positions to succeed, but Milton had thrown an interception on four consecutive drives dating back to the Indiana game and is completed just 58.7 percent of his passes.
Redshirt freshman Cade McNamara came in and completed 4 of 7 passes for 74 yards and a touchdown late against the Badgers in garbage time. Whichever quarterback starts will face a Rutgers secondary that has allowed the most passing touchdowns in the conference with 11.
When Rutgers Has the Ball
Turnovers are killing the Scarlet Knights, as they sit second to last in the conference with seven interceptions and four fumbles. Those issues came to a head last Saturday with Vedral's three interceptions, two of which coming in the fourth quarter that aided the Illinois comeback.
There is no doubting that Vedral, a Nebraska transfer, has been an upgrade at the position for Rutgers; his five passing touchdowns in four games are just two shy of the seven TD passes the Scarlet Knights had in all of 2019. Competent quarterback play has also allowed for a breakout year from wide receiver Bo Melton, who shined last week with 150 yards and two touchdowns. He should have an early Thanksgiving feast against a Michigan secondary that ranks 12th in the Big Ten, allowing 247.3 yards per game.
The Wolverines' run defense fell apart last week against the Badgers without star linemen Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson as Wisconsin rolled up 341 yards on the ground on close to seven yards a carry. Rutgers running back Isaih Pacheco is fifth in the conference in rushing and is coming off a 133-yard performance his last time out.
The Wolverines have won five straight games against Rutgers by an average of 51.2 points per contest and have shut out the Scarlet Knights twice in that span. However, numbers-wise in 2020, Rutgers and Michigan are fairly similar in most categories. That's a testament to Rutgers under a new regime, as well as a detriment to this Michigan staff in Year Six of the Jim Harbaugh era. Michigan has a more talented roster, but does motivation play a factor at all on Saturday? Give the edge to the Wolverines even if this will be far closer than anyone expected coming into the season.
Prediction: Michigan 31, Rutgers 20
Podcast: Week 12 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.