I'll be the first to admit I was both astonished and angry when the Big Ten added Maryland and Rutgers to the fold and merged them into conference play this season. I didn't know much about the schools or their teams, but I couldn't see how they fit geographically or athletically. What on earth could it do to improve the stature of the already lowly Big Ten? I still think I'm seeing a mistake when the ESPN crawler posts upcoming B1G games and I see Rutgers and Maryland matchups scroll past. Ironically, the addition of Nebraska and Penn State never bothered me, mostly because I expected them to add quality competition (and some very pleasant fans) to the mix.
As I anticipate this weekend's first meeting between Rutgers and Michigan in Piscataway, New Jersey, I wish I could still look at the Scarlet Knights and think "easy win" or new conference "patsy". I'm afraid I can't given what I've seen of Michigan football this year in addition to what I've learned about Rutgers, where college football was born in 1869.
Rutgers is currently 4-1, losing their only game to Penn State, 13-10. They do much of their scoring in the first half and are stingy with the ball. They don't turn it over often and when their opponents offer the ball up, the Scarlet Knights seize the gift, scoring 41 of their season-to-date 151 points off turnovers. Michigan, often a turnover machine, should be worried. Also, the Wolverines are 0-3 when they're behind at the half. The defense, ranked 9th nationally in total D, must keep the Scarlet Knights from racking up points early. The offense must do what it's had difficulty doing so far this year. Hold on to the ball. Make good choices.
Possibly the most concerning aspect of Rutgers is their pass rush. They currently lead the Big 10 with 21 sacks. If that doesn't set off some alarms in Ann Arbor, then the Wolverines and Devin Gardner are in for another in a series of very long days. Their Achilles heel is the offensive line. It's imperative that they show up and give Gardner and his targets time to make smart, unrushed plays.
Let's face it, taking on a more-than-respectable Rutgers team on the road is bad enough. Having to do so while a national media circus dances around you and your program will make it even tougher. I don't have a lot of sympathy for the plights of Dave Brandon or Brady Hoke right now. I don't like their nefarious night moves or the countless contradictions peppered in the transcripts of the "He said/Well, he said" game.
I do, however, care for Team 135. I do believe they want to win and want to do it in the Michigan tradition. That's what they signed up for. Do they have what it takes? Maybe. Maybe not. Whether this Saturday ends in a W or an L, though, I will respect them for going out there play after play and trying. Kind of like Shane Morris did last week. It takes guts not to give up at this point. The pressure they are under must be indescribable. They deserve better than what they're getting right now from the adults surrounding them.
And now, for a prediction I truly loathe putting into writing. My Michigan heart wants to kick my Michigan butt right now, but my well-educated Wolverine brain says: Rutgers 27, Michigan 21. (And I'm a little hopeful about the 21!)
Go Blue and prove me wrong!