Breaking down Michigan football's game at Rutgers: How badly does U-M need a win?

Free Press sports journalists Orion Sang and Rainer Sabin cancel the matchup of week five of Michigan football at Rutgers on Saturday night:
Sang: "Michigan football could lose to Rutgers." If you had told people this before the season started, they would have laughed at you. But we are now in week 5 and the possibility of the Wolverines losing to the Big Ten doormat is very, very real. Michigan is 1-3, lost three times, and lost a bigger lead each week. Let's recap how it all happened - and why the Wolverines are having a seemingly difficult matchup at Rutgers this week.
[Michigan Soccer at Rutgers: Scouting Report, Prediction]
Michigan linebacker Michael Barrett completes Rutgers receiver Paul Woods in the fourth quarter at Michigan Stadium on September 28, 2019.
Sabin: The Vegas Oddsmakers still prefer Michigan in this matchup, but I think it will be closer than the line suggests. The Wolverines have a trust problem that extends from the coaches to the players. This is reflected in the quarterback situation that appears in the air at this point. The fact that Michigan is considering a change in such an important position mid-season shows that the Wolverines are looking for answers.
Sang: Yes, I think the lack of trust is a big problem. Michigan have not led for the past three weeks, giving up first touchdowns in all four games this season. So the Wolverines get hit in the mouth at the start of every game - and the response has been poor. Last week's game was the worst as Michigan lethargically fell 28-0 in the first half. This is already not the most talented or experienced team - so it is a problem when the Wolverines start slowly and play carefully.
Sabin: Right. And it seems like a fight for Michigan in every way. The crime is always in default and in unfavorable situations is at a distance. The defense consists of bleeding on the ground and in the air - depending on how the enemy attacks the wolverine. And it doesn't seem that Michigan will be able to get out of these problems as it is ultimately a talent problem. This is clearly the worst roster Michigan had during Jim Harbaugh's tenure.
Michigan Wolverines quarterback Cade McNamara is set to face Wisconsin in the second half at Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, on November 14, 2020.
[What Kills Michigan Football's Running Game]
Sang: And that last part shouldn't come as a big surprise - the Wolverines were near the end of the nation when production returned, and that was before Nico Collins and Ambry Thomas signed off. If you injure Kwity Paye, Aidan Hutchinson and Jalen Mayfield, you could argue that Michigan has played without its top five players for much of this season. Of course, the Wolverines still recruited better than Wisconsin and Indiana, which both blew out in consecutive weeks. So this seems to be a development and inexperience problem - on top of the fact that they don't have the same talent as in previous years.
Sabin: Interestingly, this game could have an impact on recruiting. Michigan moved away from New Jersey in this final cycle, in part because former assistants Chris Partridge and Anthony Campanile left the staff this off-season. A Rutgers win could potentially affect Michigan's ability to get back into the mix in New Jersey that new / old coach Greg Schiano is trying to block. A victory over the Wolverines would signal to prospects in this state that the Scarlet Knights have closed the gap between the two programs that was as big as ever just a few years ago.
Michigan quarterback Joe Milton warms up before the game against Wisconsin at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on November 14, 2020.
Sang: Let's see how Michigan could win this game. The big question is who will start the Wolverines in the middle - but regardless of whether it's Joe Milton or Cade McNamara, I think the offense could do more to help the quarterback. Milton has struggled with countless second and third place finishes this season. I think a successful game plan for the Wolverines starts with restoring the running game and getting ahead of schedule in early downs. And defensively - I think the easiest way to put it would be this: Michigan just has to play better by avoiding costly penalties, getting pressure, defending the run and covering receivers.
[Big Ten football predictions for every game against the spread]
Sabin: Jim Harbaugh said everything was on the table this week. And I think they need to look carefully at how they use the running backs. A four-member committee seems excessive. I wonder if the Wolverines will streamline the floor game in that regard. I could also see offensive coordinator Josh Gattis giving his quarterback - whoever it was - some rythm to start the game. I think one of the recurring problems is that Milton had to play too many challenging passes in the early stages of the Games and that stems from the fact that they are behind schedule and have to cover a lot of ground on third runs.
Michigan Wolverines running back Hassan Haskins rushes to a touchdown in the first half against Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium on October 24, 2020.
Sang: If Michigan wins, I think it's closer than the betting line suggests - and a lot closer than anyone would have thought before the season started. And that seems like a pretty accurate summary of where this program is right now: it has to beat Rutgers, but it's no guarantee that it will.
Sabin: I agree. The fact remains that opponents stand up to play Michigan even when Michigan is down. So expect Rutgers to play at an optimal level. And the Wolverines aren't good enough to just show up at Piscataway and get a win. This seems like a close game.
Contact Orion Sang at osang@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more about the Michigan Wolverines and subscribe to our Wolverines newsletter.
This article originally appeared in the Detroit Free Press: Michigan Football Game Breakdown at Rutgers

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