Michigan vs. Rutgers: View from other side
VIEW FROM THE OTHER SIDE
Ryan Dunleavy, who covers Rutgers for NJ.com, breaks down the Scarlet Knights for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Saturday’s Michigan-Rutgers game. You can follow him on Twitter @rydunleavy.
Question. Rutgers runs the ball — a lot, and the expectation is Michigan and the remaining opponents will stack the box. Can the Scarlet Knights find room to run against Michigan’s defense?
Answer. I’d be very surprised if Rutgers is able to move the ball consistently against Michigan’s defense. Sure, Penn State did, but Rutgers doesn’t have Saquon Barkley (though he committed to Rutgers first.) Rutgers was supposed to have a strong rushing attack anchored by a nasty offensive line and a four-back rotation when the season began, but it didn’t come to fruition until a 274-yard rushing performance two weeks ago against Illinois. Then came a 74-yard touchdown run in the first three minutes against Purdue. But Purdue’s decision to devote extra defenders to stopping the run led to Rutgers averaging only 1.5 yards per carry the rest of the game. And punting on 12 of its final 13 possessions. Rutgers will be able to rotate in fresh legs and different running styles, but no legitimate passing attack means no success against a defense like Michigan’s.
Q. What has the change to QB Giovanni Rescigno meant for the team?
A. In the box score, not much. In intangibles, a lot. Rescigno has completed 14 of 28 passes for 176 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions over his two starts. But he is 2-0 because he makes smart decisions with the ball. If Rescigno is healthy enough to scramble — he was against Illinois, he wasn’t against Purdue because of a leg injury — then he is dangerous because he can run for first downs or throw on the run when the pocket collapses. I’d describe him as a “gamer.” Someone who raises his performance on gamedays because he plays with such physical toughness and will — and it really rubs off on his veteran teammates.
Q. Rutgers has won two straight Big Ten games. Is it a sign Chris Ash is making something happen?
A. It’s a sign of what I’ve been saying for two years: The Big Ten West is mediocre-to-bad outside of Wisconsin, and Rutgers isn’t as bad as people think. In Ash’s tenure, Rutgers has yet to score a point in five games against Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. But it has now beaten Purdue and Illinois, and lost by 10 points or less to Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota (and Indiana in the East). Rutgers is much improved from a year ago, mostly on defense and special teams. Is Ash ‘making something happen?’ The Big Ten East schedule is going to prevent any real serious movement for Rutgers, Maryland or Indiana for a while.
Q. Has former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill made a difference for the offense?
A. It’s not really noticeable in the statistics. Rutgers ranks near the bottom of the country in total offense and most of the teams with worse passing statistics run the triple-option offense. But Kill has made a few subtle differences. For starters, Rutgers is playing a ball-control no-huddle style with pro-style formations that better fit the personnel. At times, it has looked too conservative, but increasing time of possession has helped keep scores close (with the exception of the Ohio State game). One year ago, Rutgers was trying to run an up-tempo power spread a la Ohio State — but without the talent or speed to do so. Kill also made several key in-game adjustments. The biggest was when he dialed up a wheel route for speedy running back Raheem Blackshear, who caught a 35-yard touchdown pass on a crucial third-and-19 against Purdue.
Q. So 78-0 seems a long time ago (even though it was last season), and Rutgers and Michigan are both 2-2 in the Big Ten. Michigan is still favored by more than three TDs. How do you see this playing out?
A. In a tidy 2 hours, 30 minutes. Run, run, run some more. John O’Korn had arguably the best day of his career against Rutgers as a freshman at Houston in 2013, but it seems he has lost all confidence. And Rutgers secondary — while ravaged by injuries — is still better now than it was then, believe it or not. Rutgers beat Michigan in 2014. Michigan annihilated Rutgers in 2016. In 2015, Michigan won 49-16. Something similar to that feels right.
SCARLET KNIGHTS TO WATCH
■ Giovanni Rescigno, QB:
The junior from Warren improved to 2-0 as the starting quarterback this season with nine completions against Purdue, including a 35-yard touchdown pass. Remember, this is not a pass-happy offense. He also didn’t have any turnovers in the game against Purdue last week. He made his first start of the season in the win at Illinois two weeks ago and had 89 yards passing and 41 rushing yards.
■ Gus Edwards, RB: A senior, he started the first seven games and leads the team in rushing with 487 rushing yards and 561 all-purpose yards. He has 17 career rushing TDs, including five this season. Edwards ranks ninth in the Big Ten averaging 69.6 yards per game and is 10th in Big Ten games averaging 71.5 yards.
■ Janarion Grant, WR: A senior, the second-team All-Big Ten receiver in 2015 had so much promise entering the 2016 season but missed out because of injury. He was out several weeks this season before returning two weeks ago at Illinois. Grant had a 31-yard kickoff return in the win over Purdue last week. Grant made the Athlon Sports Preseason All-America Team as a kick returner.
FACTS AND FIGURES
■ Two in a row: Rutgers enters the game at Michigan Stadium tied with Michigan at 2-2 in the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights won their last two games, at Illinois and against Purdue, marking the first time they’ve won consecutive Big Ten games since entering league play in 2014. The last time Rutgers won three straight conferences games was during a five-game streak in 2012 while in the Big East.
■ Going for perfection: Rutgers, tied with Michigan for fourth in the Big Ten East, is hoping to close out October without a loss by winning all three games. It would be the first time since 2006 it hasn’t lost in October.
■ Tough final stretch: The Scarlet Knights went against teams from the Big Ten West and beginning with Michigan will play five-straight teams from the Big Ten East to finish the regular season. They have two tough games in the final four, at Penn State (a week after traveling to Indiana) and at home against Michigan State.