COLLEGE PARK — After the ball had found Josh Metellus and landed in his hands like a soft pop-up, after he had gotten up from the pile and turned toward the sideline and after Maryland’s hope of doing something had been extinguished as much as mathematically possible in the first quarter of a football game, he let everyone know it.
He hopped around, hands clapping together, then one going to a money sign. He high-fived Brad Hawkins, then swaggered back to the bench with a helmet-tap from Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.
There was never much of a reason for the Wolverines to be anything but confident on Saturday. They came into College Park to a stadium filled with mostly their own fans and whipped the Terrapins, 38-7. Their defense was rarely tested, and that has as much to do with the simple fact that Maryland doesn’t have the talent to compete with Michigan than it does with anything else.
But as far as assessing that talent — for the season at large, and for this game — Metellus stands at the center of it all.
The senior safety finished Saturday with nine tackles, eight of them solo and two of them for loss. The Terrapins managed to string together three drives with a chance of ending in points all day, and one of them ended in that Metellus interception.
“(Metellus) is one of the captains,” said senior linebacker Josh Uche. “We need that. We needed that out of him.
“It just gives the whole defense confidence.”
In a Michigan football ecosystem where the defense is rarely questioned, and in a Don Brown defense where pressure is the lynchpin of everything, it’s easy to forget the importance of a safety — a position that often exists to be the band-aid on everyone else’s mistakes.
On Saturday, it couldn’t have been more evident. In the run game, Metellus is often the “spill” player, meaning his job is to cover the edge as Michigan’s interior defenders force the running back that way. On a quarterback run Saturday, Maryland quarterback Lance Legendre was only looking at defensive end Kwity Paye. As he tried to get the edge, there was Metellus with what Harbaugh called “a statement kind of tackle.”
It wasn’t the only one of those plays Metellus made in the run game. Another came later in the third quarter, after Anthony McFarland hit a hole hard for a first down, with what looked like space in front of him.
“And then Josh got from point A to point B and made the tackle that, it stopped (McFarland),” Harbaugh said. “Turned him back to his goal line. … And to have a safety come up and make that kind of play, that’s a statement in the game. That was really impressive.”
Metellus’ growth through four seasons is well-chronicled. He stayed at Michigan for his senior season when he could have gone pro and likely been drafted, choosing to instead improve his NFL draft stock and finish out his college career as a captain.
It would have been easy for him to shut down after the Wolverines got blasted in Wisconsin, and easier still to do that after a second loss at Penn State ended their College Football Playoff hopes, and all but eliminated them from Big Ten title contention.
Instead, there he was on Saturday, flying around the field in a game that was both meaningless and all but predetermined.
“I feel like we’ve been showing up every week since that Wisconsin game,” Metellus said afterward, seated next to Harbaugh in a cramped media room. “Everybody on this team been doing what they’ve been trusted to do. And I feel like the confidence is real high, but I feel like we still got that one play mentality to keep us pushing throughout the rest of these games.”
That mentality — and keeping it through the season— has as much to do with Metellus, the senior leader on this defense, as anything else.
“That loss hurt,” Metellus said, thinking back to the Wisconsin game. “And we came in and next Monday, we knew we had to get the job done.
“And we knew how.”