Cade McNamara made the most of the opportunity. (Detroit Free Press)
Betting lines should not set narratives in sporting events, but when Michigan was rolled out as an 8-10 point favorite in the early line this weekend over Rutgers, it was simultaneously seen as an indictment of where Michigan is right now because a). I mean, they should be way more of a favorite over Rutgers in a normal circumstance and b). it still seemed pretty generous even with how Michigan had been playing this season.
So when Michigan was down 17-0 in the second quarter and the college football watching portion of the internet began bird-dogging the trainwreck, in stepped Cade McNamara to take the reins at QB from Joe Milton. Milton's 5 of 12 for 89 yards performance was not inspiring, and several drops or near misses were a source of frustration. But Michigan needed a spark and McNamara did exactly what was needed. He hit Mike Sainristil for 14 yards to get Michigan into Rutgers territory, then found a wide-open Cornelius Johnson for 46 yards and Michigan's first score of the game. Though the two-minute drill left a lot to be desired, Michigan at least had stanched the bleeding and would get the ball back to start the second half.
Giles Jackson's kickoff return for a touchdown to start the second half will be somewhat muted by the fact that Rutgers countered with their own touchdown just three plays later. But it set the tone for the methodical 8-play drive of its own that Michigan countered with, especially the hard yards by Hassan Haskins to get Michigan first and goal on the Rutgers 10. Michigan would score two plays later and pull within three. The offense had settled into some kind of rhythm, and the defense holding Rutgers to a field goal felt like the tiniest of victories. An exchange of punts later, it was McNamara moving the ball down the field again with a mix of well-executed passes (and a bonus gift of 15-yard penalty for a facemask by Rutgers) and Michigan took its first lead since the end of the Minnesota game. Hope slowly began to seep back in, like water into someone's unfinished basement, unwelcome but undeniably present.
When Michigan forced a six and out, aided immensely by a sack by Little Boss Josh Ross, it began to look like Michigan could run a long drive that would salt the game away. They did just that, to an extent. A 12 play drive with a solid mix of run and pass burned six minutes of game clock but still left five minutes in the fourth quarter, even as Michigan sat up 8. Could the defense, as banged up as it is, find the old magic and get out of New Jersey with an ugly, but still meaningful win in regulation?
No. It could not. Rutgers made the most of both third and long and fourth and long situations, slipping through the Michigan defense to get a score, and then Noah Vedral dragging Michigan defenders through on a QB draw for the 2-point conversion to knot the game at 35. It felt like once again the dam of negative feelings was about to burst.
Quinn Nordin's third missed field goal of the day in the opening half of 1OT certainly seemed to confirm the worst. No way Michigan could hold Rutgers and even if it could, Valentino Ambrosi had been money all night. The math even backed up the despair (well, not despair, the resignation.)
But Michigan did hold Rutgers to -2 yards on the sequence and Ambrosi missed a 45 yarder to send the game into a second OT and push the game closer to finishing on Sunday morning. So when Rutgers used a clever pass to get into the end zone on one play, Michigan needed to counter. And it did, thanks to McNamara continuing to find receivers, Haskins continuing to find ways to get extra yards, and Rutgers continuing to get facemask penalties. McNamara kept the ball and flipped into the end zone and we headed for 3OT.
Thanks to a DPI prayer on 3rd and 18, Michigan was inside Rutgers 10 once more, and after a pair of Haskins run, they were inside the 1. People much smarter than me explained why, based on Rutgers' defensive strengths, Michigan did not want to sneak the ball, but it was still maddening to a long-time football observer that Michigan was lined up in shotgun when they needed six feet to get the ball in the end zone. After McNamara was stopped for no gain on third down, it looked it would be the reasonable question of the day. But Haskins got in, but the two-point conversion failed when McNamara threw the ball to the wrong side of Ronnie Bell, and now Michigan needed to hold Rutgers off. Would the defense finally get it done?
Yes. They did. They held Rutgers to net one yard on their four plays in 3OT, sealed by a Dax Hill interception in the end zone, to mercifully bring this game to a close, over four and a half hours after this whole affair had begun.
There is no great lesson from this game just as there is no great lesson from this season. Michigan has a bunch of players injured in the middle of a global pandemic in a season that probably shouldn't be being played, but here we are. We still came together to suffer collectively but we did it collectively. It was the most Michigan football thing possible.