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'They found a way': No. 19 Michigan gets gritty, holds off Rutgers to move to 4-0

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has been talking about finding balance on offense, but now the Wolverines have a bigger issue — finding balance within the game.

The No. 19 Wolverines went scoreless in the second half Saturday and opened the door for Rutgers in the Big Ten opener, but the defense came up big in the final minutes to preserve a 20-13 win. Michigan is now 4-0 and will travel to Wisconsin next week, its first of back-to-back road games.

Michigan linebacker Nikhai Hill-Green (41) and defensive lineman Mazi Smith stop Rutgers running back Aaron Young in his tracks during the second quarter.

“Offensively, we weren’t moving the ball,” Harbaugh said of the second-half performance. “Showed the character of the defense. Really proud and pleased with that.

“They found a way. Got it done. Gritty game. Wasn’t pretty, but when they start making a space for pretty on the scoreboard, we’ll worry about that. Right now, that doesn’t go up on the scoreboard.”

Michigan, which led 20-3 at halftime, sputtered in the second half when it was smothered offensively. The Wolverines opened the second half with four-straight three-and-out possessions, while Rutgers worked its way back into the game, taking advantage, at least early on, of a defense that was on the field for 17:42 in the second half. The Scarlet Knights had 10 first downs in the quarter, while Michigan had none.

BOXSCORE: Michigan 20, Rutgers 13

Things gradually began to unravel for Rutgers. With just less than 10 minutes left in the game, and the Scarlet Knights trailing by a touchdown, quarterback Noah Vedral threw incomplete into coverage in the corner of the end zone on third down at the Michigan 11-yard line. Then, Valentino Ambrosio missed a 29-yard field-goal attempt. Michigan, which ran six plays for 14 yards in the third quarter, found a bit of a pulse the next series. The Wolverines ran eight plays, knocked 3:35 off the clock and got two first downs — Rutgers had 14 first downs to Michigan’s two in the second half — but Jake Moody, who made two field goals in the second quarter missed on a 47-yard attempt with 1:49 left.

The Scarlet Knights (3-1) entered the game plus-eight in turnover margin and had not turned over the ball through three games. But on the second play of their final possession, David Ojabo forced Vedral to fumble and Junior Colson got the recovery to seal the win.

Michigan entered the game leading the nation in rushing, averaging 350.3 yards a game, and ranked 16th nationally in total offense, averaging 514.7 yards. Against Rutgers, Michigan had 275 total yards, including 233 in the first half. The Wolverines rushed for 112 yards and quarterback Cade McNamara was 9-of-16 for 163 yards.

“Overall, sort of the theme going around is we’re not satisfied, and I can assure that that’s extremely the case right now, especially on the offensive side of the ball,” McNamara said. “And from the offensive side of the ball, we’re super proud of our defense. They played really well today and bailed us out. We’ve got to make sure that we don’t put them in that position again.”

The defense was without linebacker Josh Ross, the team’s leading tackler, in the second half because of a stinger. He had left the game late in the first half with an apparent issue with his left shoulder.  Without one of their leaders on defense, Nikhai Hill-Green said the defense is proud of the way it finished the game.

“Something we preach on defense is win,” said Hill-Green, who finished with a game-high eight tackles, including a tackle for loss. “What was important today is coming out with the win, making the key stops we needed down the stretch. Today wasn’t good enough. We know that on both sides (of the ball). We’ll get it fixed. We need to execute better and play team football.”

Aidan Hutchinson had a sack and Michigan had six tackles for loss.

“As a team, we didn’t flinch at all,” Hill-Green said. “We bowed up and got the win.”

Michigan opened the game looking methodical and reliant on the run as they have this season. Hassan Haskins rushed for two scores in the first half, including a 1-yard touchdown run to cap a 74-yard, 17-play drive that opened the game. The Wolverines went heavy with the run that drive —  the first seven plays of the game were on the ground —  and used 7:36.

It certainly appeared to be Michigan making a statement, but maybe the Wolverines meant it as much for themselves as they did to set the tone. After a season of playing from behind, Michigan entered this season wanting to start fast. This second half against Rutgers showed some holes in the Wolverines’ offense, which lacked the start-fast approach in the second half.

“We were extremely efficient in the first half,” McNamara said. “In the second half, we struggled a little bit, whatever it was. I’ve got to be better as well. When they load the box like that it’s going to come down to us beating man coverage. I’ve got to do a better job of throwing more accurate balls. we’ve got to do a better job overall offensively and as a unit, me, wide receivers and running backs being able to break man coverage. That’s what it’s going to come down to.”

Now, the real tests begin as Michigan leaves the comfort of home where it has spent the last four weeks.

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @achengelis