The last time the Michigan football team went on the road, no one knew what to expect. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was making his coaching debut, the starting quarterback was a mystery, the defensive replacements for NFL Draft picks Jake Ryan and Frank Clark were unknown and fans wondered just how competetive the team would be.
One month after the Wolverines’ 24-17 loss to now-No. 10 Utah, those questions have been answered. Jake Rudock is the starting quarterback. The defense is one of the deepest and highest-achieving units in the country. By outscoring its last three opponents 94-14 and entering the polls for the first time since Nov. 2, 2013, Michigan looks like it has the potential to surpass preseason expectations.
While everything is going right for the Wolverines (3-1), everything is going wrong for their opponent. Maryland (2-2) hosts Michigan after getting blown out last week by West Virginia, 45-6, and losing by three touchdowns to mid-major Bowling Green three weeks ago. Though not related to team success, the Terrapins had built this game up as a huge recruiting weekend and fan event, only for much of it to be wiped out by the impending Hurricane Joaquin.
The Wolverines are favored by more than two touchdowns, and even that might be conservative. Here’s how things break down for Saturday:
Michigan pass offense vs. Maryland pass defense
Before the season, the edge would have gone to Maryland’s pass defense. With plenty of returning defensive backs — including star junior Will Likely — pass defense was expected to be one of the Terrapins’ best units, while the Wolverines rolled out a new quarterback without a clear replacement at receiver for second-round draft pick Devin Funchess.
However, Maryland’s secondary has underachieved, allowing opponents to complete 60 percent of their passes for 267 yards per game, and gave up 491 yards in the air against Bowling Green.
Michigan has looked more capable in the passing game each week. The Wolverines rank just 96th in the nation at 194 passing yards per game, but much of that has to do with the fact that they haven’t trailed in 11 quarters and have become a run-first team as Rudock continues to learn the playbook. Michigan also ranks 13th nationally with just three sacks allowed, which should counter the Terrapins’ aggressive pass rush.
Don’t expect the Wolverines to heavily rely on their passing game this week, either, but its success will have more to do with an early lead and 30 mile-per-hour winds than with Maryland’s secondary.
Michigan rush offense vs. Maryland rush defense
Michigan has rushed for 732 yards and 10 touchdowns in its last three games and showcases its depth more each week. With four running backs who have started multiple games in their collegiate careers, the Wolverines might not even have to use their lead back, junior De’Veon Smith, who tweaked his right ankle in last week’s win against BYU.
Likely to be behind early in stormy weather, Maryland can expect to see a lot of run plays Saturday. The question then becomes — after allowing over 200 yards per game and 4.31 yards per carry in its first four games — whether or not the defensive front can stop the inevitable.
Maryland pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
Perhaps one of the most lopsided matchups in the entire Big Ten, Michigan brings the nation’s fifth-best pass defense to College Park, while Maryland is still looking for a replacement after sixth-year senior C.J. Brown and his top two receiving targets graduated last year.
None of the Terrapins’ three quarterbacks have been up to the task yet, completing 50.4 percent on their passes and tossing a nation-leading 12 interceptions on just 125 pass attempts. Maryland’s starting quarterback for Saturday, junior Caleb Rowe, threw four picks in three quarters against West Virginia last week.
In Michigan’s corner is an upperclassman-heavy unit that is not only one of the most experienced in the country, but also one of the best. Whereas Maryland gave up 491 passing yards against Bowling Green, the Wolverines have given up 487 passing yards all season. The Terrapins probably won’t pass much in the storm Saturday, and that is the right decision.
Maryland rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
In a matchup of two experienced and talented units, it’s tough to tell whose numbers hold more weight. Behind senior Brandon Ross, Maryland has piled up 196 yards per game and is gaining 5.85 yards per carry. Fortunately for the Terrapins, they can count on four or five backs in any given game to ensure their rushing attack is not only effective, but creative.
Rotating juniors and seniors in and out at will, Michigan’s run defense has shown flashes of dominance, allowing just 2.52 yards per carry and 82 yards per game. Tack on 17 tackles for loss, and Michigan has every capability to stall Maryland.
There aren’t many ways for the Terrapins to steal an upset win, but one of them is on the ground.
If nothing else, Maryland has a clear edge over the Wolverines on special teams. Senior kicker Brad Craddock was a second-team All American last season after going 18-for-19 in field goals and converting all 41 extra-point attempts. In the return game, Will Likely will likely be the Terrapins’ biggest threat to find the end zone, as he already has 337 punt return yards — 109 more than any other returner in the country.
Michigan has improved since last season in special teams. Sophomore safety Jabrill Peppers has shown glimpses of explosiveness in the return game, while seniors Blake O’Neill and Kenny Allen have brought consistency to the punting and kicking games, respectively, narrowing the gap evident last season between the two programs evident last season.
Make no mistake, Maryland’s special teams are as good as any in the country. The only question is — with winds and a hurricane knocking on the door — will it impact the game enough for Maryland to have a shot?
Momentum is often overrated in sports, but when two teams are heading in such opposite directions as Maryland and Michigan are, it matters. The Wolverines have ridden the Harbaugh hype train since December, and that train has only gained steam with dominant wins. With its first trip to the Washington area since 1945, that train may be treated to thousands of Michigan fans looking to catch a glimpse at this season’s suddenly-stout team.
Prediction: Michigan 23, Maryland 0