Heading to tunnel at halftime Saturday, the Michigan football team was angry.
Never mind its 35-16 lead or best offensive half of the season.
When the Wolverines saw the Rutgers Scarlet Knights celebrating a field goal, they took it personally.
“You could tell that they were happy, that they were excited about being down by 19 points, which kind of blows my mind,” U-M defensive lineman Chris Wormley said.
It lit a fuse in U-M coach Jim Harbaugh as well, who was “livid” in the locker room, according to cornerback Jabrill Peppers. He was furious that the Wolverines surrendered two long returns on special teams to hand Rutgers 10 points.
As he tore into his team, he implored them to treat the game as if it were 0-0, and they emerged in the second half and slammed the door in a 49-16 win at Michigan Stadium.
Harbaugh went two when leading by 25 and had his quarterback throwing bombs in the third quarter.
This was a game that was never in doubt, as the Wolverines (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) scored on their second drive and ripped off five straight touchdowns to separate by halftime. After Harbaugh’s tirade, they outscored the Knights in the second half, 14-0.
Maybe the halftime energy was just Harbaugh’s way to keep their edge.
But this was a day when it was not necessary.
Michigan’s Jehu Chesson celebrates his tackle of Rutgers kickoff returner Janarion Grant in the fourth quarter on November 7, 2015, in Ann Arbor.
Quarterback Jake Rudock had the best game of his career as a starter — two years at Iowa, this one at Michigan — throwing for a career-high 337 yards and two touchdowns, while running for one.
He spread the ball to 10 different receivers and showed a toughness — a week after leaving the game injured at Minnesota — that inspired his team.
“You get those games and get into a rhythm,” Rudock said. “Anytime you can see a ball get completed and completed and seeing the field well that’s a big thing. That’s a tribute to our coaches, giving us a really good scheme.”
Facing the No. 119 pass defense in the country, Michigan capitalized quickly on offense, choosing to keep the ball in the air early. Rudock threw 18 passes in the first half of all varieties — screens, downfield, across the middle. He even lateraled to Jabrill Peppers, who weaved around for an 18-yard touchdown run.
U-M set season highs in points (49) and yards (487).
The defense returned to form, allowing only 225 yards, 54 which came on one first-quarter run. The defense was supremely motivated — both by last year’s Rutgers game, a 26-24 loss, and by the struggles in the secondary the week before at Minnesota, when the Wolverines allowed more than 300 passing yards.
U-M’s defensive line was fueled after watching a video Friday night that ended with the Rutgers (3-6, 1-5) fans storming their home field last year after the Knights threw for more than 400 yards.
“We discussed it, pulled it up, and what happened last year wasn’t going to happen this year,” Wormley said.
For the first time this season, the special teams had multiple letdowns — both to returner Janarion Grant, both in that infuriating second quarter.
But by game’s end, Harbaugh was over it, basking in the glow of a team that played as well as it has in a month, or maybe all season.
And his players didn’t mind the midgame, directed at them and the opponent, knowing that’s what he’s all about.
“He’s the ultimate competitor,” U-M tight end Jake Butt said. “That’s pretty clear at this point. Everybody knows that. I think down to the last tick on the clock, he’s going to be competing for everything. If it’s a call, if it’s a bad block, he’s going to be out there getting fired up and everyone around him fired up.”
They understand to ignore the scoreboard.
“When he says at halftime it’s a 0-0 game,” Rudock said, “he truly means it.”
Note: Michigan’s next game, Saturday at Indiana, is set for 3:30 p.m. and will be televised on ABC (ESPN2 mirror).
Contact Mark Snyder: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mark__snyder.