Rutgers at Michigan
► Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
► TV/radio: BTN/950
► Records: Rutgers 1-2, 0-1 Big Ten; No. 20 Michigan 2-1, 0-1
► Line: Michigan by 28
View from the other side
James Kratch covers Rutgers for NJ Advance Media. He breaks down the Scarlet Knights for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Saturday’s Michigan-Rutgers game at Michigan Stadium. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesKratch.
► Question: McLane Carter is in concussion protocol and hasn’t been cleared and Chris Ash says Artur Sitkowski will start at Michigan. He’s coming off a pretty good game, so how has he improved? Last year he was 8-of-19 for 40 yards and an interception against Michigan – interceptions were an issue last year, but has he turned the corner there?
► Kratch: Rutgers certainly hopes so. Sitkowski played the best game of his career against Boston College, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes for 304 yards, a touchdown and an interception, and the pick was a garbage-time heave to try to make something happen. He looked significantly more confident and comfortable running the offense than he did as a freshman. But it was one game and Boston College did not generate much pass rush. The Scarlet Knights have to be thrilled with how he protected the football against a defense that forces many turnovers, but this week’s matchup with the Wolverines will be much more telling as to how far he has progressed.
► Question: Do you think Carter will be cleared and perhaps play?
► Kratch: I do not. Ash indicated Carter would not be cleared this week when he announced Sitkowski would start, and we literally have yet to see Carter since the injury. He has not been spotted at practice or on the sideline, although folks we talk to say he has been in the team facility.
► Question: After seeing Michigan’s defense decimated by Jonathan Taylor and the Wisconsin rush attack, do you think Rutgers, with Raheem Blackshear and Isaih Pacheco, feel a bit more emboldened and that the Scarlet Knights can find holes, as well?
► Kratch: Establishing the run will be Rutgers’ top offensive priority. Blackshear and Pacheco are its best two offensive players and coordinator John McNulty – who started his career as a graduate assistant at Michigan – wants to run the offense through them, as well as take pressure off Sitkowski. The run game is also an emphasis following a poor outing against BC. McNulty admitted he was shocked with how successful the Eagles were stopping the run.
As for whether or not the Scarlet Knights can find holes, I don’t believe they can feel too confident. They aren’t Army and they don’t have one-time in-state commit Jonathan Taylor in their backfield. For what it’s worth, Rutgers ran the ball pretty well against the Wolverines last year – 193 yards, 80 of which came on Pacheco’s long touchdown run – but if the offensive line does not bounce back from a horrid showing against BC, it will be tough.
► Question: Michigan’s offense has been out of sync, that’s pretty clear, so how does Rutgers match up defensively?
► Kratch: Well, Rutgers does not rush the passer terribly well and has struggled to stop the run. So if the Wolverines are going to get right, this may be their day. One of the things I remember most from last year’s game was how long Shea Patterson had in the pocket before he threw. I expect things to be similar on Saturday.
Rutgers’ cornerback duo of Damon Hayes and Avery Young is one of the team’s strengths, but they struggled against Iowa. I have to expect Michigan will draw on what the Hawkeyes did because UMass offered little resistance in the season opener after a spurt of smoke-and-mirrors success and BC does not have much of a pass offense. The run game is one area I am very intrigued by. Rutgers has given up several explosive runs and has struggled as games progress, but the Wolverines have not had much success on the ground. Something’s got to give.
► Question: Saw that your colleague suggests Chris Ash’s time at Rutgers could end soon. How likely is that and if the Scarlet Knights do make a change, would Michigan linebackers coach Anthony Campanile, an alum, be on a list of candidates?
► Kratch: All indications are it will take an extraordinary turnaround this season for Ash to get a fifth year. This is not like last season where he was safe throughout the misery that was 1-11. The Scarlet Knights have five straight “manageable” games after Michigan – Liberty, Maryland and Minnesota at home, Illinois and Indiana on the road – and Ash probably needs to win at least four of them, if not sweep the stretch.
If Rutgers does make a change, there is going to be immense pressure on athletics director Pat Hobbs to hire someone with head coaching experience after Ash’s struggles as a first-time coach. That obviously works against Campanile, but his popularity here would get him more consideration than other coordinators. I would expect most, if not all, potential new Rutgers coaches would try to hire Campanile away from Michigan as one of their first acts on the job.
Players to watch
► Raheem Blackshear, RB: Blackshear is a running back but he also is used in the receiving game and so far has accounted for 332 yards of total offense. He is among the more versatile players on the Rutgers roster and last season led the Scarlet Knights with 1,136 yards, including 586 rushing. This season he has had career-highs of nine reception in games against Boston College and Massachusetts. He enters the Michigan game with 22 catches for 255 yards and two touchdowns and 77 yards rushing on 23 carries. Blackshear leads all running backs nationally with 80 receiving yards and 7.3 receptions per game. He is 12th nationally in receptions and third among Big Ten players. He’s averaging 100.67 all-purpose yards per game and has 10 career games with at least 100 all-purpose yards. Blackshear leads the active roster with 205 career carries and 901 rushing yards.
► Artur Sitkowski, QB: With McLane Carter in concussion protocol, Sitkowski will make his second straight start this season. He threw for a career-high 304 yards, his first collegiate game reaching 300, in the 30-16 loss to Boston College. He was 23-of-33 (69.9 percent) against BC, his best career passing completion percentage in a game. This will be his 13th career starts and last season became the third Rutgers true freshman quarterback to make double-digit starts last season, joining Tom Savage (11 in 2009) and Ryan Cubit (all 11 in 2001). He is just one of 11 true freshmen to start at quarterback for the Scarlet Knights since 1945. The big moment for Sitkowski in the Boston College game was connecting with Blackshear for a 74-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, the longest scoring pass play for the Scarlet Knights since 2016.
► Adam Korsak, P: Korsak, honorable mention All-Big Ten last year, has been named the Ray Guy Award Punter of the Week twice this season. Against Boston College, he had five punts inside the 20-yard line, including a long of 54. He was also punter of the week Sept. 10 after averaging 47.6 yards on 10 punts at Iowa. He had seven punts downed inside the 20-yard line – five inside the 10 and four inside the 5-yard line. He had a season-long 69-yard punt, tied for seventh longest in the program, that pinned Iowa on the 1-yard line.
Facts and figures
► Holding 'em off: Rutgers has limited negative-yardage plays on offense, and now ranks first in the Big Ten and third nationally with only 2.67 tackles-per-loss surrendered per game. The Scarlet Knights lead the conference and are seventh nationally with just 0.67 sacks permitted per game. Rutgers' 18 sacks allowed since the start of the 2018 season are the fewest among Big Ten teams.
► Historic win: This will be the sixth meeting between Rutgers and Michigan since the Scarlet Knights joined the league in 2014, and the Wolverines hold a 4-1 advantage. But Rutgers will always have its first – its first Big Ten victory was against Michigan, 26-24, on Oct. 4, 2014. Gary Nova led Rutgers with 404 passing yards and three touchdowns in that victory. Since then, Michigan has outscored Rutgers 204-37 the last four games, including a 78-0 win in 2016.
► Turnover talk: Everyone has to know by now that Michigan has nine turnovers through three games, including seven fumbles. The Wolverines are ranked among the nation’s worst in turnover margin at minus-4. But Rutgers has six interceptions and two fumbles, while opponents have turned the ball over only twice this season, both on interceptions. Michigan’s defense has forced five turnovers that have been overshadowed by the offense’s mishaps.