COLLEGE PARK — To the casual onlooker, the Michigan football team was primed for a trap game against Maryland.
The conditions seemed almost too perfect. The Wolverines were coming off a signature road win against Penn State, and — pending a victory against the Terrapins — they’d be playing for a Big Ten East title and a potential College Football Playoff berth next week against Ohio State. Maryland, on the other hand, could clinch bowl eligibility with a win, and it had a dynamic quarterback in Taulia Tagovailoa that could make the defense pay for any mistakes.
Michigan, though, was having none of it.
The sixth-ranked Wolverines (10-1 overall, 7-1 Big Ten) disposed of the Terrapins (5-6, 2-6), 59-18. Just when it looked like Michigan would grind out the sort of patient, exhausting win that’s defined its season so far, it came out with a dynamic passing attack that staggered Maryland and quickly allowed the Wolverines to shift their focus toward the Buckeyes.
“It’s hard not to think about that team when you’re so close,” junior quarterback Cade McNamara said. “But I’m glad that we came out of this game with a win. We did what we had to do, and now it’s gonna be pretty easy focusing this week.”
At the start, Michigan’s offense operated the same way it’s found success all season — with long, methodical drives that wear the defense down and take time off the clock. On the second possession of the day, that came through the short passing game, as McNamara pioneered an 11-play, 70-yard touchdown drive where he completed five passes for 41 yards. Later, it did the same with its bruising run game, assembling an eight-play scoring drive that took 3:05 off the clock despite starting at the Terrapins’ 45-yard line.
Neither drive was flashy or over-ambitious, but they broadly reflected the Wolverines’ longstanding approach on offense this season: Pick up enough short, consistent gains and eventually find the endzone.
But that tentative approach sometimes caused problems. Two of Michigan’s first three drives ended in three-and-outs, and in one case midway through the second quarter, a decision to run the ball on 3rd-and-10 stalled an otherwise promising drive in Maryland territory.
So, the Wolverines found new looks in the passing game. On one possession late in the second quarter, freshman quarterback J.J. McCarthy completed three passes — including a one-handed touchdown grab by junior receiver Mike Sainristil — that led Michigan to a 21-3 lead. Then, early in the third quarter, McNamara found sophomore receiver Roman Wilson open on a wheel route for a 25-yard reception that set up the Wolverines’ fourth touchdown of the game.
“I’m extremely confident (in this offense),” McNamara said. “Obviously, there’s plays in a game that you wish you could have back, and I think as an offense, we’re going deeper into the season, those plays are starting to really minimize themselves.”
Whereas in previous weeks, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has been content to run out the clock after picking up a lead, the Wolverines’ offensive onslaught continued well into the second half on Saturday. Freshman running back Donovan Edwards — mostly a reliever out of the backfield in prior games — played a major role in that dynamic attack, catching 10 passes for 170 yards, including a 77-yard touchdown reception.
Even the special teams contributed to the assault with a 79-yard kick return touchdown on a cross-field lateral from senior linebacker Michael Barrett to sophomore receiver A.J. Henning. When combined with a defense that held Maryland’s normally solid passing game to just 178 yards — and even tallied a pick six from junior cornerback D.J. Turner — Michigan’s evolved attack was simply too much for the Terrapins to handle.
Still, next week poses a much more daunting challenge. Michigan’s upcoming showdown with Ohio State will mark the third time under coach Jim Harbaugh that the Wolverines have entered The Game with College Football Playoff hopes still alive.
The previous two, of course, have ended in failure for Harbaugh’s program, but this year’s team insists it’s different. Regardless of the willingness to change that Michigan showed on Saturday, most outside the program will see it as shallow if improvements don’t show themselves against the Buckeyes.
“We just gotta do it,” junior defensive lineman Mazi Smith said. “Actions speak louder than words.”