Game breakdown: Michigan vs. Maryland

Thursday, October 4, 2018 - 7:34pm

Michigan senior running back Karan Higdon tallied 30 carries against Northwestern last Saturday.

Michigan senior running back Karan Higdon tallied 30 carries against Northwestern last Saturday. Buy this photo
Amelia Cacchione/Daily

There is quite a bit of noise swirling around Maryland football right now. This preview will choose to focus on the field, aimed at the team that will be traveling to Ann Arbor to play Michigan on Saturday. But there is plenty to read about the rest, most of which is not good.

The Terrapins come into the game a confounding 3-1 team. They notched a statement 34-29 win at Texas in week two, before losing by 21 points the next week against Temple. They then responded with a 42-13 trampling of Minnesota, and are on the fringe of the AP Top 25, receiving 10 votes in this week’s poll.

Maryland will be the most complete team the Wolverines have faced since Notre Dame, and thus an adequate tune-up ahead of the daunting four weeks that loom on the horizon. The Daily breaks down what to expect in this week’s Big Ten bout:

Maryland passing game vs. Michigan defense:

The first thing you’ll notice about Maryland’s offense is the regular motion. On nearly every play, a player comes across the formation, whether the quarterback is under center or in the shotgun. Sometimes this is designed to cause misdirection, in the form of a jet sweep or another creative run. Often, it’s just used to get the linebackers moving and the defense scrambling.

It allows several different options off those looks. The Terrapins like to get their quarterbacks on the move as often as possible. Notice the plural. Redshirt freshman Kasim Hill will start and play most of the game. He’s the better passer, and a far more well-rounded quarterback. He’s also shown a solid ability to navigate the pocket. Tyrrell Pigrome might also get some time under center. Pigrome is the dual-threat option, as he’s only thrown eight passes on the season and completed just four. More often than not, when he’s in the game, it’s a running play in some form. Both Pigrome and Hill suffered season-ending ACL injuries last season that decimated Maryland’s season. Hill will get the majority of the snaps, but don’t be surprised to see Pigrome play for a few series’.

It’s not the most prolific passing game the Wolverines will face this season — but it’s formidable and poses a test, nonetheless. In the Terrapins’ loss to Temple this season, Pigrome and Hill combined to complete just eight of their 21 passes for 63 yards and two interceptions. On the flip side, in their win over Texas, the duo was a combined 20-for-33 for 244 yards and a touchdown. If Maryland can establish the run early and keep Michigan’s pass-rushers off balance, its passing game can pick its spots effectively. The Terrapins’ best shot is in a close, low-scoring game.

If not? Well, ask Adrian Martinez what can happen to a freshman quarterback on the road in a spread offense playing against the top-ranked defense in the country.

Maryland running game vs. Michigan defense:

Again, it all starts with the motion. The Terrapins will run jet sweeps, counters off those jet sweeps, then play action off that. Whether it’s the best approach against the Wolverines’ defense — with one of the most athletic linebacking corps in the country — remains to be seen. But it is the look Maryland will come out with.

For that reason, it’s a rushing attack predicated on balance. The Terrapins’ leading rusher, Ty Johnson, has just 40 carries on the season. Michigan senior running back Karan Higdon tallied 30 carries last week alone. 

For Maryland, 13 players have registered at least one carry this season; five have a per carry average over seven yards, and the same five have rushed for at least one touchdown over 20 yards. That’s where the majority of the big plays in this offense will come from. 

Michigan allows just 86 yards per game on the ground, good for seventh in the nation. But the Terrapins’ running game might pose the most well-rounded test yet.

Michigan passing game vs. Maryland pass defense:

Lost a bit in the flair of junior quarterback Shea Patterson’s comeback last week against Northwestern: Michigan’s passing game is far from clicking on all cylinders. Patterson missed open receivers on numerous occasions, despite having arguably the best pass protection of the season. 

Playing at home this weekend will likely help cure some of those struggles. In three home games, Patterson has completed 72 percent of his passes, totaling 482 yards and seven touchdown passes. In two road games, he’s yet to throw for a touchdown.

Some of that may be contingent on strength of opponent, sure. This weekend will help answer as to how much. Maryland’s pass defense allows roughly 210 yards per game, a respectable 50th nationally. In general, the Terrapins will be the best defense to come into Michigan Stadium thus far this season. 

One of the best determinants of how effective the passing game will be — and can continue to be going forward — is the continued improvement of the pass protection.

“Pass protection is going pretty well,” redshirt junior left tackle Jon Runyan said on Monday. “… Shea’s had time, and when he has time, he can make unbelievable plays with his arm.”

Maryland comes into the game with 11 sacks on the season, and will put Runyan’s words to the test, especially with big matchups against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State looming. 

Michigan running game vs. Maryland run defense:

If junior Chris Evans (listed as questionable) is able to play Saturday, it will be the first time both he and Higdon have played since week two against Western Michigan. In that game, both got double-digit carries, combining for an efficient 23-carry, 245-yard performance, adding three touchdowns. It’s the duo that compelled many to think Michigan’s running game could be a pillar of this team.

So far this season, results have been uneven. Against the Broncos, the Wolverines racked up 308 yards on the ground. Against Notre Dame, that number was just 58. If Michigan is to accomplish its goals this season — beating rivals, competing for the Big Ten, etc. — it will have to do so with the foundation of an above-average running game. 

While Maryland isn’t quite at the level of an Ohio State or Michigan State, it’s a step in that direction. The Terrapins allow just 104 yards on the ground per game, good for 18th nationally. 

Special teams:

There’s a real argument to be made that the biggest strength of this Michigan team is not its top-ranked defense, but its special teams. Suddenly, junior Will Hart is one of the best punters in the country, averaging a staggering 52.1 yards per punt. It’s just one of the ways the Wolverines’ special teams continue to give them a subtle advantage week in, week out. Punt and kick coverage included.

“It’s been a big deal for us,” said fifth-year senior special teams extraordinaire Joe Hewlett. “We really want to be aggressive and we really kind of take that to heart. … Going 85-90 yards on our defense is not going to really happen that often.”

Hewlett also said the group has been setting — and meeting — goals. Hewlett said those goals include giving the offense an average drive start past the 30-yard line, hold the opposing team to fewer than 15 yards per return, and meeting a certain net punt yards measurement.

After week three, Hewlett says, the group evaluated all these measures. They’ve met them all.

That, of course, goes without mentioning redshirt sophomore kicker Quinn Nordin, who has now hit six of his seven field goal attempts this season, with a seemingly limitless leg.

Breakdown:

Excluding Notre Dame, Maryland will be the best team Michigan has faced this season. It has offensive balance and defensive talent. If the game is close, the Terrapins’ rushing attack could control the game. 

It’s not a game the Wolverines should lose, but it’s absolutely one they could.

That being said, Jim Harbaugh is 20-4 at home in his time at Michigan for a reason. The Wolverines are hard to beat at Michigan Stadium. After a lackluster first half against Northwestern, expect defensive coordinator Don Brown to have his defense ready to wreak havoc early and often.

Michigan takes an early, commanding lead and never looks back.

Prediction: Michigan 31, Maryland 13