ANN ARBOR, Mich. — On the first play from scrimmage, the Rutgers football team was pretty much destined to not have luck in its favor.
With a crowd of 109,789 — the largest Rutgers has ever played in front of — dominated by maize and blue settled in at “The Big House,” No. 16 Michigan looked like it had just handed the Scarlet Knights a welcoming gift to Ann Arbor.
Out of the shotgun, Jake Rudock’s toss to Drake Johnson fell to the ground before Rutgers came up with it. For a second, the Knights were primed to take an early lead with the ball on the Wolverines’ 25-yard line.
But when replay reversed the call to a forward pass, the fumble was ruled an incompletion and Michigan gained second life.
The Maize and Blue didn’t look back from that point on, running Rutgers out of Michigan Stadium in a flattening 49-16 defeat of the Knights on Saturday.
“In terms of our team, I think right now we’ve got a group that’s frustrated,” said head coach Kyle Flood. “As a program, we’ve gone through a three-game stretch now, playing three of the top teams in the country — three of the top defenses in the country.”
Rutgers (3-6, 1-5) suffered its third straight blowout loss. The Wolverines (7-2, 4-1) avenged their defeat last year in Piscataway when the Knights notched the program’s first Big Ten victory in a 26-24 thriller at High Point Solutions Stadium.
But from Michigan’s opening drive, the second all-time meeting between the two East Division programs resulted in an incompetent dud.
Rudock plucked the Rutgers defense one-by-one in his first 300-yard passing performance of his short career as a Wolverine. The Iowa transfer kicked the Knights’ secondary while it was down, throwing for 337 yards on 18-of-25 passing for two touchdowns.
After Michigan missed a 37-yard field goal, Rutgers handed it right back over on a three-and-out. Rudock got the offense shooting for six the rest of the day, tossing a 13-yard strike on a play-action pass to Jehu Chesson to get on the board, 7-0, at the 8:03 mark in the opening quarter of play.
He even added a rushing touchdown just for kicks on a 4-yard scramble to cap Michigan’s second scoring drive with 4:43 left in the first quarter.
“He’s a good quarterback and kudos to (Michigan), but it’s nothing we didn’t see (before),” said junior free safety Anthony Cioffi, who had five tackles. “They were just good balls (thrown by Rudock) and they were a great team.”
The same couldn’t be said for his own team and its starting quarterback.
After the two worst statistical starts of his young career, Chris Laviano continued the trend of poor play for the third consecutive week. The sophomore was 11-of-26 (42.3 percent) with 97 yards, an interception and three sacks, falling to 2-6 as the starter under center.
Since his career-high performance at Indiana, Laviano has fallen off. Once the most accurate passer in the Big Ten, the Glen Head, New York, native has a 41.7 percent completion percentage on 81.7 yards per game with three interceptions, a fumble and zero touchdowns.
“Each week, we’ve been learning from the previous games. We don’t think about them,” Laviano said. “But right now, we’ll learn from this game, watch the film and then we’ll just move on from there and just keep a positive attitude.”
As it has been for the previous two lopsided losses, sophomore Hayden Rettig entered at quarterback in the fourth quarter when the game was out of reach. He was 0-for-1 with a sack in mop-up duty.
Flood remained firm on his support for Laviano, ratifying his decision by saying the opportunity to gain experience against a top-five defense for the third week in a row bodes well for any young quarterback’s development.
“Offensive football is an 11-man game. There’s no question,” Flood said. “I left Chris in a little bit longer than that because I thought there was a lot to be gained by playing against this (Michigan) defense. You can’t simulate what they do on defense in practice. So when you play it in a game, you have the chance to gain the experience of playing against it and that’s gonna make both of those quarterbacks (Laviano and Rettig) better going forward.”
While it was much of the same, the absence of star wide receiver Leonte Carroo plagued the Knights as the offense totaled 225 total yards with a clear inability to stretch the field and open a one-dimensional passing game.
That ostensibly carried over to rest of the offense as Rutgers ran for a total of 128 yards on 32 attempts. While senior Paul James dressed, the senior didn’t take the field as sophomores Robert Martin (10 attempts, 81 yards) and Josh Hicks (9 attempts, 41 yards) split carries.
It culminated to a day where special teams put all of the points on the board between junior wide receiver Janarion Grant’s 98-yard kick return, his third of the season, at the 10:29 mark in the second quarter and senior placekicker Kyle Federico’s 3-for-3 mark on chip shots.
But the offense struggled again. Since the Knights put up 55 points against Indiana roughly one month ago on Oct. 17, the unit has yet to score a touchdown with Laviano as its quarterback.
The last touchdown on offense came Oct. 24 on Rettig’s pass to junior wide receiver Andre Patton with 13 seconds left in a 49-7 shellacking to then-No. 1 Ohio State.
At the half, Rutgers had 88 yards on 14 carries. Martin’s near-touchdown on a 54-yard run before Jabrill Peppers hawked him down in the first quarter fueled that number, but the Knights’ team-high rusher said the ground game sputtered as the Wolverines proved to be too much on defense.
“(The running game) kind of (stalled out) because we had to adjust quick to score points,” Martin said. “But I think if it was a close game, we would’ve definitely been able to run the ball. I think our offense did a good job of running the ball, but I think the game got out of hand a little quick so it took us out of the running game.”
With three games left on its schedule, the clock is ticking on the Knights’ dreams of the fifth straight bowl game.
Rutgers returns home to face Nebraska (4-6, 2-4), which fought with similar bowl eligibility hopes on the line against No. 8 Michigan State in a Saturday night upset over the previously-unbeaten Spartans, needing to win out to prevent an empty December.
Flood, who said he doesn’t look that far ahead, is known for his trademark mantra of going 1-0 each week.
But with the collective weight that the final stretch holds on the season — and arguably the program — it adds up to a crucial three games left on the schedule for the fourth-year head coach one year after it went 8-5 during its inaugural Big Ten season.
“It’s not the curve you want, year-to-year, but I think every year is unique because of the personnel,” Flood said. “I’m not ready to look ahead to next year yet because we’ve got a lot of football left to play this year.”
For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @GarrettStepien and @TargumSports on Twitter.