It’s no secret that Rutgers has not fared well since entering the Big Ten in 2014. With the Scarlet Knights owning a record of 10-51 against Big Ten opposition during this period, to describe Rutgers' performance as “mediocre” would be a little too kind.
And the Scarlet Knights have done no better against Michigan, losing six out of their seven matchups with the Wolverines, including a 78-0 embarrassment against a Jabrill Peppers-led Michigan squad in 2016.
With that being said, it does seem like Rutgers started to move in the right direction since hiring coach Greg Schiano in advance of the 2020 season. Though a 3-6 record on that season doesn’t have the look of a team on the rise, those three wins in a Big Ten-only schedule were the Scarlet Knights’ first Big Ten victories since 2017. And Schiano has since built on those results, starting this season 3-0.
Additionally, Schiano has had a notable effect on the external view on his program. Recruits of higher caliber are considering Rutgers, and the well-respected coach brought in transfer players from across the Big Ten in his first season.
If nothing else, Schiano’s work has earned the praise of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. When asked what characteristics that he notices in a team coached by Schiano, Harbaugh illustrates the culture shift that has taken place in Rutgers’ program.
“Hard, tough, guys that play all out, play together,” Harbaugh said. “Don’t make mistakes, execute, disciplined teams. All of the good stuff.”
All of those words are positive, if a little cliché, but Harbaugh dug a little deeper into what has made Rutgers more of a threat heading into this week’s matchup.
“They’re scoring points,” Harbaugh said. “They average around 27 points a game. They’re playing really salty defense, really good special teams. They’re playing good football."
And, even more specifically:
“Rutgers has got really good backs,” Harbaugh said. “I have great respect for [Isaiah] Pacheco. They’re extremely athletic. He’s a really good runner, gets north-south and breaks tackles. He can make the big play. They’ve got a really good quarterback, and receiver #18, he’s outstanding. The more good playmakers you have, the better”
This is all to say that the Rutgers that the nineteenth-ranked Wolverines will face at 3:30pm on Saturday is not the same sort of Rutgers team that they have trounced year-in and year-out.
That might not matter, though, as this Michigan team is very different from the one that found itself down 17 points to the Scarlet Knights before earning a comeback win. This is true in many ways, but one more poetic than the rest.
Then-sophomore quarterback Cade McNamara came off the bench in that 2020 matchup and drove the Wolverines forward on that aforementioned 17-point comeback. That game was Cade’s first significant on-the-field action, and he has taken great strides since then.
“[McNamara has improved] in all areas [since that game], but he’s been consistently good since he’s played in games,” Harbaugh said. “His ability to drive the team for points; that’s getting really impressive. I don’t know exactly what that percentage is, but it’s gotta be pretty high. His overall confidence, ability, time-on-task, reps.
“He capitalized on his opportunity, and took the bit and ran with it. Gotta give great credit to care for doing that, for having the fortitude to step in there like that and take the bull by the horns. He hasn’t given it up, so that’s all to his credit.”
Though McNamara has seemed to slot into a game manager sort of quarterback role, only taking shots down the field after numerous run-heavy drives, his growth in leadership, confidence, and consistency has drawn consistent praise from Harbaugh and others. And those skills certainly will have a grand part to play in Saturday’s face-off.
The Wolverines are likely facing the strongest Rutgers team they have since it has the Big Ten, but, ultimately, that may not mean much.
McNamara is as ready as ever to earn his second victory against the Scarlet Knights, and his team looks quite ready to help him see that happen.