Have Mercy: Michigan vs Rutgers

As Uncle Jesse says on Full House and I’ve said on the Scoop and Score podcast, “Have mercy.” There is no reason college football shouldn’t have a mercy rule –that is,  beyond two teams agreeing, mid-game, to use a running clock. Wikipedia says the biggest comeback in FCS history is 35 points, when Michigan State turned a 38-3 deficit into a 41-38 win in 2006. What would be wrong with a 50-point mercy rule? The exact number and how it’s handled can be discussed in the comments section.

The latest example of the sport’s need for reform came on Saturday night, when Michigan beat Rutgers 78-0. First, the numbers (warning: content not suitable for minors):

  • 600: UM’s total yards
  • 39: RU’s total yards
  • 481: UM’s rushing yards
  • 2: RU’s first downs
  • 9:06: time remaining when RU recorded its first first down
  • 5: RU’s passing yards (on 2/18 completions)
  • 13: UM’s tackles-for-loss
  • 16: UM’s pass attempts
  • 8: UM’s plays from scrimmage on its first three possessions (the Wolverines went three-and-out twice and then fumbled)
  • 100: percentage of team’s receptions for Jawaun Harris, the second straight game he was on the receiving end of all of RU’s completions (he had three last week against Ohio State)
  • 136-0: total score differential in RU’s last two games
  • 1939: the only year in which a ranked team had a larger road win (UM beat Chicago 85-0) and a team (Chicago, again) had two worse consecutive losses (a combined 146-0); the year Chicago abolished its football program
  • 1: cannon blast at High Point Solutions Stadium (RU scored on an interception return, but it was overturned be a replay review)
  • 68: UM players who saw the field (70 were allowed to dress)

Well.

If you didn’t watch the game and assume Michigan mercilessly ran up the score, consider these facts:

  • UM emptied its bench, as evidenced by the last bullet point above. A freshman kicker was not used; same for possibly one other UM player.
  • UM threw the ball (with its back-up quarterbacks) just three times in the second half. The run plays were basic hand-offs up the middle or tosses to either side.
  • Jim Harbaugh reportedly apologized to Rutgers head coach Chris Ash during their postgame handshake, telling him he wasn’t trying to run the score. “No, no, I know,” Ash supposedly said in response. “That’s OK.”

Yes, Michigan converted a two-point conversion after a second-quarter touchdown to make it 29-0. To me, almost anything goes in the first half. Harbaugh said they’d practiced the play all week and called for it after each of the first four touchdowns, but called it off the first three times because of Rutgers’ defensive alignment.

“It certainly wasn’t the intent to make the score what it was,” Harbaugh told the media after the game, before adding, “Our players were better.”

What more was he supposed to do? Reserve players executed simple plays on both sides of the ball that Rutgers couldn’t stop. Coaches can’t tell running backs or defensive linemen to fall down.

Michigan is competing for a spot in the subjectively-chosen college football playoff field. There is incentive to run up the score, despite Harbaugh not trying to do so on Saturday night.

I’ve been saying for years that schools like UM shouldn’t even schedule certain teams (like Delaware State, which it beat 63-6 in 2009). That thinking doesn’t even apply here, since Rutgers is a Big Ten opponent. We can still blame the system, though — college football needs a mercy rule.

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