Michigan football got punched in the mouth. Its response bodes well for future games.

Free Press sports writer Rainer Sabin answers three questions Saturday after Michigan football's 31-7 victory over Rutgers at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor:

How did Michigan respond to its first punch in the mouth?

During Michigan’s run to two consecutive Big Ten titles, the Wolverines rarely conceded the first score of the game. It happened only twice last season — first in Michigan’s dominating victory over Ohio State to end November and then again in its surprising loss to TCU in December's College Football Playoff semifinal. But 60 seconds into their Big Ten opener, the Wolverines trailed by a touchdown after they surrendered a 69-yard pass to Christian Dremel. The Rutgers receiver won inside position on a slant route before evading a tackle from safety Rod Moore and sprinting the rest of the way.

It was a stunning sequence, because Michigan had yet to allow an opponent to breach its end zone in any first half this season. But it was also concerning, considering that Wolverines were coming off a sluggish performance against Bowling Green the previous week.

The Wolverines, however, soon regrouped on their second possession, when they scored a touchdown on a 95-yard march that doubled as a showcase of clever play design and precise execution. The drive gained steam with a 33-yard completion to Donovan Edwards, who was sprung open after he motioned across the formation before the snap. It then crescendoed with a beautiful 35-yard flea-flicker to tight end Colston Loveland, who slipped into the seam on a delayed release. It was finally capped by a rugged 2-yard run by Blake Corum, who blasted into the end zone. From that point forward, Michigan didn’t look back.

Michigan Wolverines quarterback J.J. McCarthy looks to pass against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights during the first half at Michigan Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023.
Michigan Wolverines quarterback J.J. McCarthy looks to pass against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights during the first half at Michigan Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023.

THE GAME: Mike Sainristil's heads up play helps Michigan football pull away from Rutgers, 31-7

Did J.J. McCarthy rebound from his poor performance against Bowling Green?

The Michigan quarterback was almost flawless in Michigan’s first two victories over East Carolina and UNLV.

But last Saturday against Bowling Green, McCarthy compiled one of the worst stat lines of his college career, throwing three interceptions in 13 pass attempts.

Afterwards, McCarthy seemed chastened by his poor performance and promised he would “get better from it.”

The improvement he sought came seven days later against Rutgers. McCarthy looked like a different QB, demonstrating poise in the pocket as he singed the Scarlet Knights’ defense with his arm and legs. Two plays during the second quarter touchdown drive summed up McCarthy’s impact on the offense. On third-and-8, McCarthy flipped a pass to Roman Wilson, hitting the receiver in stride as he ran a crossing route designed to defeat man coverage for a 23-yard gain. Then, on the next down, McCarthy carried Michigan across midfield on a 22-yard keeper. It was one of several outside runs by McCarthy that were designed to make Rutgers remove defenders from the box and give Blake Corum wider lanes in the A and B gaps. By doing so, McCarthy changed the complexion of an offense that was able to strike Rutgers from all angles.

And when it was over, McCarthy had been redeemed. He completed 71.4% of his pass attempts and contributed 265 yards of total offense.

Is Mike Sainristil the best player on Michigan’s defense?

Even before the nickel back sealed Michigan’s victory Saturday with a 71-yard interception return in the third quarter, a convincing case could be made that Sainristil is Michigan’s top defensive player.

He’s certainly among the most versatile.

Since transitioning from wide receiver to the secondary last year, Sainristil has been a disruptive force. He’s a capable pass rush rusher when deployed as a blitzer out of the slot.

He’s even better in coverage. The fifth-year senior routinely positions himself to make plays on the ball. During the defining moment of the game, he recognized the receiver’s route and swooped in before Wimsitt’s ill-fated pass arrived, snagging his second interception of the season and third of his career.

He then maintained his balance in a crowd of bodies before identifying a path to the end zone, looking like the wideout he once was. The 71-yard return was a feat of brilliance — the latest conceived by one of Michigan’s most valuable players.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football's offense finds its stride behind QB J.J. McCarthy