Michigan linebacker proves to be key ‘game changer’ in win over Rutgers

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Stop if you’ve heard this one before.

Michigan, after getting off to a slow start that had it reeling, even carrying a deficit heading into the locker room at half, pulled out all the stops in the second half to run away with a 52-17 victory at Rutgers on Saturday.

And, boy, was this quite the turnaround story. The fifth-ranked Wolverines outscored the home team 38-0 in the second half, quieting the crowd and limiting Rutgers to 57 yards of total offense. The Scarlet Knights were held to just one first don.

The spark, players and coaches say, came from linebacker Michael Barrett and his memorable, highlight-reel day.

“What a game he had,” head coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters, unprompted, Saturday night. “Just tremendous play. He was in the right place at the right time.”

Just two plays after Michigan’s second-half opening touchdown drive, Rutgers quarterback Gavin Wimsatt had one of his passes jumped and intercepted by Barrett, his first career pick. The turnover not only gave the Wolverines’ defense something to hang its hat on, but helped set up the offense inside the red zone.

Two plays later, Blake Corum punched it in for a touchdown, giving the maize and blue a two-score lead.

More: Overheard outside the U-M locker room: Refocusing, adjusting and sweaty buffs

“Game-changers, right? Coming into halftime, that’s what we needed — game changers,” said Corum, who tallied his sixth consecutive 100-yard rushing game. “It gets us going. It gets the team going. We need plays like that, and we need players like that. He came through.”

Luckily for 9-0 Michigan, Barrett wasn’t done. On the very next play, after the Wolverines kicked off and returned the ball back to Rutgers, Barrett was back on the field ready for more. And Wimsatt, who finished 14 of 29 for 166 yards and a touchdown, but threw three interceptions, provided another. A pass intended for Rutgers wideout Aron Cruickshank went off his hands and into the air, right to Barrett — who returned it 31 yards for a touchdown.

“I was thinking, ‘Man, thank God,’” Barrett said. “I dropped one last week and was due. Once it tipped off his hand, my eyes got big and was like, ‘There’s no way.’ I just got to make sure I caught it. That’s all I could think about.”

Barrett showed up to the postgame news conference with reporters wearing the diamond-encrusted gold Cartier sunglasses popularly known as “buffs,” the team-inspired prop awarded to members of the Michigan defense who force a turnover.

And since Barrett had two, he got extra time with the buffs.

“They had sweat on it from the first time,” Barrett joked. “It felt good to put ‘em right back on, but then I had to go back out (again). I didn’t have much time to celebrate — and I was trying to catch my breath.”

The performance was a long time coming for Barrett, a former high school quarterback who Michigan converted to the defensive side five years ago. The 6-foot, 233-pounder was slotted to be the next “viper” in the blitz-heavy, man-pressure defense under Don Brown, but his departure forced Barrett into a new, more traditional linebacking role.

The change cut into Barrett’s playing time last year, but he’s since become an integral part of the new scheme. Throw in the rash of injuries (another middle linebacker, Kalel Mullings, wasn’t available to play on Saturday) and playing time was widely available for Barrett, whose stat line also included four tackles.

“His journey here has been an interesting one, and I’ve just been waiting for a breakout game from him,” defensive end Mike Morris said. “He had been preparing for it, and it finally came with the pick-6. I just thank God he had his moment, man. He’s one of my big brothers, best friends, and I’m just so happy for him.”

Read more on Michigan football:

Takeaways, observations from Michigan’s win over Rutgers

Michigan missing four starters, DB Gemon Green in uniform at Rutgers

Behind the scenes as U-M’s equipment staff keeps football team humming

Jim Harbaugh had an epiphany after tunnel attack. How will Michigan respond?

For Michigan RB Blake Corum, patience pays off

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