The No. 3 Michigan football team knocked off its in-state rival last weekend for the first time in four years, and though the game wasn’t pretty, the third-ranked Wolverines thoroughly enjoyed it.
The struggling Spartans (0-5 Big Ten, 2-6 overall) played one of their best games of the season, outscoring Michigan 14-5 in the fourth quarter and outgaining it 217-192 on the ground. It still wasn’t enough, as the Wolverines escaped East Lansing with the Paul Bunyan Trophy, which now sits in Ann Arbor, adorned with miniature maize pants and a Michigan hat.
Still, many defensive players, including senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis, voiced their displeasure with the fact they allowed the Spartans to get back in the game. The Wolverines (5-0, 8-0) allowed themselves to enjoy the rivalry win, but their goals evidently aren’t stopping there.
With hopes of a Big Ten Championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff very much alive, Michigan still has work to be done, starting Saturday when former defensive coordinator DJ Durkin returns to Ann Arbor as a first-year head coach at Maryland (2-3, 5-3).
“I think he’s doing a fabulous job, him and his entire staff and team,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “You can see the energy. You see the strength. You see the competitiveness and execution on the field, et cetera. The flip side of that is we know that this’ll be a big game, a championship game. This will be a real test for our club.”
Under Durkin last season, the Wolverines’ defense posted three straight shutouts and allowed the fourth-fewest yards per game in the country. This year, under new defensive coordinator Don Brown, that unit has improved to first in that category as well as first in points per game.
Though his position group struggled more than usual in stopping the run last week, defensive line coach Greg Mattison feels like they’ve handled the regular-season grind well enough to be ready for the November stretch.
“There starts to become a wear-and-tear, maybe, throughout that long stretch,” he said. “But our head coach is pretty smart. This isn’t his first trip. He knows how to set up practice and how to do things, and Coach Brown knows exactly what this defense needs.”
On the other side of the ball, Michigan’s offense had perhaps its best single-half performance of the season against Michigan State, starting with redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight answering a Spartan touchdown drive with a 3:23 scoring drive of his own. Speight continues to improve week to week, and he has thrown 13 touchdowns against just three interceptions.
This week, the Wolverines have the advantage of preparing for a familiar defense. Beyond Harbaugh’s relationship with Durkin, defensive coordinator Andy Buh worked with the pair at Stanford, and linebackers coach Matt Barnes was a defensive analyst for the Wolverines last year.
Though Harbaugh identified a few schemes and a “hustle” that he recognized on film, neither he nor offensive coordinator Tim Drevno are expecting preparation to be easy. Drevno pointed out that Buh is bringing his own flavor to his new team, and no two defenses end up looking the same.
“I think you always kind of build your football team around what you have personnel-wise and what they do best to put them in successful situations,” Drevno said. “You might see something different out there that caters to them to be successful.”
The Terrapins might not have the pieces to pull off an upset, though — star cornerback Will Likely is lost for the season with a torn ACL, and Maryland’s defense is fresh off allowing 42 points at Indiana. Last year, Michigan shut out the Terrapins, 28-0, on the road, and six of the Wolverines’ eight victories this year have been by double digits.
As he has every week, Harbaugh said Monday that this game will be treated like a championship game, but the 31-point underdog Terrapins look like a long shot to capture the title.