The Michigan football team’s home-heavy schedule has the Wolverines back at the Big House this weekend.
There, they have won six straight games by a combined score of 263-70. They have trailed for just 27:50, all in the Colorado game on Sept. 17. They have suddenly beaten three top-15 teams — No. 15 Colorado, No. 12 Penn State and No. 8 Wisconsin — according to the first College Football Playoff rankings released Tuesday night.
Michigan lost twice on its home field last season, but has not done so yet this year. The Wolverines have two more chances to play in front of the largest crowd in college football, the first coming this weekend against an upstart Maryland team (5-3) looking to become bowl-eligible after a 3-9 finish last season.
Once again Michigan is a heavy favorite, expected to deliver a performance as dominant as the ones it has put on already this year. Here’s how this week’s matchup looks:
Michigan rush offense vs. Maryland rush defense
Michigan’s ground game took another big step forward last weekend. The Wolverines racked up 192 rushing yards against Michigan State at 4.6 per carry, a number that — like the score — was stained by a lackluster fourth quarter. For most of the first three quarters, they gashed the Spartans’ front, marching toward six scoring drives in seven series, though three ended in field goals.
Michigan’s rushing leaders look similar, with senior De’Veon Smith, freshman Chris Evans and sophomore Karan Higdon each over 400 yards on the season. The leading rusher last week was freshman wide receiver Eddie McDoom with 53 yards, and redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers finished fourth with 24. He has seen more time at wildcat quarterback in recent weeks, and the Wolverines might use all of their tricks in the final third of the season to make their case for the College Football Playoff.
Maryland’s rush defense, meanwhile, took a big step backward last weekend. The Terrapins couldn’t handle Indiana’s up-tempo spread offense, giving up 414 yards on 57 carries. The Hoosiers had three 100-yard rushers and 650 total yards in a 42-36 victory in Bloomington.
That performance dropped Maryland to 108th in the country in rush defense at 220.1 yards per game, the kind of front that Michigan typically steamrolls. But both sides will know a little more about the other than usual, with former Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin coming in as the head coach of the Terrapins. He’ll be familiar with the Wolverines’ scheme from last year, though Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh can say the same.
Michigan pass offense vs. Maryland pass defense
One of Michigan’s more curious stats is its national ranking in passing yards — 71st, at 228.1 per game. A major reason is that the Wolverines have played almost only blowouts this season and haven’t needed to throw the ball downfield.
If redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight finds himself in a situation where he needs to pick up some yards through the air, he knows who to look for. Fifth-year senior wideout Amara Darboh’s eight catches for 165 yards against Michigan State gave him a big lead as the team’s top receiver with 664 yards.
Michigan doesn’t have much depth beyond Darboh, senior tight end Jake Butt and fifth-year senior Jehu Chesson. The only other player with more than 10 receiving yards per game is sophomore Grant Perry, who has missed the past two games with a disciplinary issue.
Speight has been consistent all year with just three interceptions, and turnovers shouldn’t be an issue Saturday against a Maryland defense with just four picks on the year. But in many other areas, the Terrapins already look like a Durkin defense with 27 pass breakups. They have also given up just 181.4 yards per game, good for 18th in the country and a strength of the team. This will be one of the toughest defensive backfields Michigan has faced.
Maryland rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
Maryland’s rushing attack might be even more diverse than Michigan’s. It’s a toss-up: The Wolverines feature four different running backs, a speedy wide receiver and a linebacker, while the Terrapins roll out three running backs, a wide receiver and two quarterbacks.
Ty Johnson is the Terrapins’ leading rusher with 624 yards. He is the big-play threat, averaging 10.4 yards per carry and breaking loose for a 66-yard touchdown last week at Indiana. Lorenzo Harrison is the workhorse, with the most carries (79) for 575 yards.
Kenneth Goins is a 5-foot-9, 233-pound bruising back, and Maryland also has Jake Funk and Wes Brown as backups. The team’s depth chart this week lists five players with an “OR” between each one, and Trey Edmunds might be a sixth if he hadn’t broken his foot last month. In all, Maryland ranks 12th in the country with 252 yards per game.
The Terrapins also run a spread offense with senior quarterback Perry Hills, who can scramble. The better runner under center, though, is freshman Tyrrell Pigrome, who ranks third on the team with 215 rushing yards. He showed his elusiveness while Hills was injured last month, and even with Hills back and healthy, Michigan could see both quarterbacks Saturday.
The Wolverines should be prepared, though. Expect their defense to correct the mistakes that helped Michigan State become the second team this season to rush for more than 100 yards against Michigan. Despite that, the Wolverines still rank 15th in the country in rush defense and have piled up 71 tackles for loss from 18 different players. They should come out fired up after seeing what happened last week, and Maryland hasn’t seen a defense of that caliber.
Maryland pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
Maryland’s passing statistics are skewed a bit by the injuries to Hills, who didn’t play against Minnesota on Oct. 15 and missed parts of other games, too. The Terrapins threw for a season-high 248 yards against Indiana, and they’re much more of a threat with Hills in the game than with the run-first Pigrome. At the end of the day, this is a run-first team, too, with 351 rushes against just 205 passes.
D.J. Moore (400 yards) and Teldrick Morgan (316) are Maryland’s top big-play threats on the outside. Durkin may have some tricks in the bag for his return to Ann Arbor as well. Against Michigan State two weeks ago, Maryland inserted third-string quarterback Caleb Rowe at wide receiver and ran a double pass play in which Rowe caught a screen and then threw it.
Some creative play-calling might be the Terrapins’ best shot against a stifling defense. Michigan’s top-ranked secondary again forced its opponent to use multiple quarterbacks in last week’s game. That unit, led by senior All-American Jourdan Lewis, also deserves most of the credit for the Wolverines’ sterling performance on third down. Opponents are converting a nation-low 15.5 percent of their opportunities, in large part because of Michigan’s lock-down defense.
Last year, that defense completed its second of three straight shutouts in Week 5 against Maryland, intercepting three passes and overwhelming quarterbacks Caleb Rowe and Daxx Garman. In that game, Michigan’s defense held down a slim lead until a struggling offense managed 28 points in the end. This year, with the Wolverines clicking all-around, the defense might have it easier.
This space in almost every installment of this preview this year has discussed how Michigan’s opponent has not had a playmaker to match Peppers. Maryland did have that in decorated senior Will Likely — until Likely tore his ACL on Oct. 15, ending his career.
We would have looked forward to seeing Peppers and Likely duel in the return game, but it now appears that Michigan has a significant edge. Peppers is still a major threat on punts and kickoffs, and few know that better than Durkin, so perhaps the Terrapins will choose to kick away from the Heisman Trophy candidate on the other side. Even in that case, Michigan often ends up with good field position.
The Wolverines’ special teams are back in rhythm, too. Fifth-year senior kicker Kenny Allen’s three field goals last week made him 9-for-13, and his punting never wavered. Maryland kicker Adam Greene is 6-for-8 with a long of just 36, and Durkin has sent out the kicking team just twice in the past five games.
Maryland defensive end Roman Braglio told reporters in College Park this week that Durkin brought up the possibility of beating the Associated Press’ No. 2 team in the country, and Braglio said the thought gave him chills.
In that way, Saturday’s game could be like many others Michigan has played this season: The Wolverines will treat it like any other, while their upset-hungry opponent will play like it’s the biggest game of their season. Durkin will surely want a strong showing against his former boss, and in his first matchup against one of the top dogs in the Big Ten East, he’ll want his team to be competitive at least.
But even as the hype has picked up steam, Michigan hasn’t missed a beat. This week’s motivation could be the College Football Playoff rankings that came out this week, putting the Wolverines at No. 3 and in the playoff if the season ended now. The Wolverines may not treat this game differently, but they have plenty to play for in their home stadium.
Prediction: Michigan 41, Maryland 15