Niyo: Wolverines find their fighting spirit in rout of Scarlet Knights

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — This is why you invite Rutgers to the party. It makes everyone else feel better about themselves.

Oh, I know there were more tangible reasons for the Big Ten to add Rutgers — and Maryland — in the last round of conference expansion in 2014. Major media markets, cable TV payouts, recruiting footprints and all that.

Rutgers quarterback Artur Sitkowski sits on the turf after failing to convert on a fourth-and-3 in the second quarter.

But this is the intangible effect: A Michigan team desperate for an emotional lift after last week’s embarrassing loss at Wisconsin got exactly what it needed Saturday with a 52-0 victory over the Scarlet Knights. It was the Wolverines' first shutout since a 78-0 rout of — you guessed it — Rutgers in 2016.

Chris Ash’s team has now lost 14 consecutive conference games, and been held under 20 points in each of those contests. In fact, the Scarlet Knights have more shutout losses (nine) than Big Ten wins (seven) since joining the league. (Iowa blanked them 30-0 a few weeks ago.) So, as pick-me-ups go, they don’t get more potent than this.

Michigan linebacker Cam McGrone all but admitted as much after he and the Wolverines’ defense limited Rutgers to 152 total yards Saturday, shrugging, “I really don’t feel a challenge from this team.”

But that’s exactly what his team needed coming off a loss that made national headlines for all the wrong reasons. An opponent that allowed the Wolverines to focus on themselves.

Three weeks into a season that began with championship aspirations — expectations, even — everything seemed in disarray in Ann Arbor. But give Jim Harbaugh and his coaching staff credit for acknowledging as much, and then addressing some of those issues this past week in practice.

“We all just needed to put more into it,” Harbaugh said after Saturday’s win. “More work, more effort.”

And more time spent making sure everyone was on the same page, something that clearly wasn’t the case as the Badgers turned them into road kill in their Big Ten opener.

Back to basics

The coaches’ mandate, quite simply, was to “give ‘em a fighting chance,” Harbaugh said.

“Making sure that our players understood every single play, every single formation, every single technique,” he added. “Taking nothing for granted — that was the approach. There was gonna be no doubt that when they went out there, they knew what to do and how to do it.”

Doing it against an opponent that rarely seems to have a fighting chance surely helped Saturday. But there were positive signs, to be sure.

Responding to criticism about their effort and hustle in the loss in Madison, the Wolverines showed plenty of both against Rutgers. And whether it was Ronnie Bell dragging three or four defenders toward the goal line on a third-quarter drive or the offensive line churning for the final yard on a Shea Patterson keeper on the ensuing play, the Wolverines looked enthusiastic — and engaged — throughout.

The coaches did, too. And while the defense rebounded in a big way — Rutgers crossed midfield once all afternoon — it was on the offensive side of the ball where the changes were apparent even before kickoff.

Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis abandoned his perch in the press box and moved down to the sidelines to call plays Saturday.

Back in March, I’d asked Gattis if he’d be comfortable making that transition, and he admitted he wasn’t sure.

“It’ll be different for me,” he laughed. “I’ve got a lot of rage on the sideline I’ve got to control.”

But Saturday, he seemed much more in control, and to a man, the players agreed that his presence — and his energy — made a big difference.

“It was a familiar face,” running back Christian Turner said. “And seeing his emotion after plays — whether good or bad — I think that definitely helped.”

Stepping up the pace

It was more than that, though.

There was instant feedback from Gattis on the sideline, both for his beleaguered quarterback, Patterson, who finished 17-of-23 for 276 yards and scored four touchdowns — three rushing, and one passing — and for the receiving corps that's his responsibility.

The whole operation seemed faster — Michigan’s tempo set the tone with a five-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to start the game — and with fewer substitution issues Saturday, “It flowed much better today,” Harbaugh agreed.

“There was a lot of trust there,” he added. “Players trusting their coaches, coaches trusting the players. And a lot of work. And it’s good to see it pay off in a victory that was much needed.”

They’ll need much more of the same to get one next week with an undefeated Iowa team coming to town. The Hawkeyes piled up 644 yards — 351 on the ground — in a 48-3 laugher of their own against Middle Tennessee State on Saturday. (That's 200 more yards than the Wolverines rang up in their season opener against MTSU.)

But for one day, at least, the Wolverines threw a party for themselves and didn’t ruin it. Didn't even come close to spoiling it, actually. And — surprise! — as receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones said, “I just feels better, you know?”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo