The No. 4 Michigan football team’s defense had Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa in its sights with receivers covered downfield by a blanket of defensive backs. On third down and eight from Michigan’s 12 yard line, by all measures the play should have resulted in a containment to force the second Terrapin field goal of the game.
Instead, Tagovailoa side-stepped past the outstretched arms of senior edge rusher Mike Morris, turned up field, planted a foot in a juke that froze sophomore linebacker Junior Colson and dove past the sticks with a small militia of Wolverines on top of him — none of which had the power to prevent his advance, setting up the ensuing touchdown that tied the game at 10 apiece.
The rest of the game looked like much of the same battle: Maryland’s athletic receivers demanding the attention of Michigan’s secondary, the defensive line trying — largely unsuccessfully — to bring down the elusive Tagovailoa in the backfield and the Wolverines needing to rely on fortunately-timed turnovers to bail them out.
“We’re getting past the quarterback a few too many times,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “And there (Tagovailoa) proved to be really slippery and good. We had some shots to get him back, get him on the ground, but he was tough. It’s tough to get him on the ground.”
But it goes beyond that. The Terrapins outgained the Wolverines through the air — 269 yards to 220 — both by beating the secondary and capitalizing on weak spots over the middle in zone coverage. Tagovailoa and Maryland backup quarterback Billy Edwards Jr. were able to find weak spots consistently, more often missing their man as a result of a personal mistake rather than stalwart defensive coverage.
Though senior cornerback Mike Sainristil lauded his linebacker’s zone coverage as “great,” it often looked far from it. Chunk plays over the middle saw the Terrapins pick up first downs with relative ease.
Sainristil attributed these moments, both for the linebackers and the secondary, to a failure to communicate.
“There were a few times out there where communication wasn’t the best amongst us DBs, and just getting calls to each other and getting calls to the linebackers,” Sainristial said. “And that two-point conversion play they had late in the game, communication was off there. But that’s little things that we can clean up during practice and just expecting what’s going to come in certain situations.”
Harbaugh’s thoughts echoed Sainristil’s, with an added emphasis on leverage in coverage.
“We need to clean up some of the calls, some of the just being in the right spot, being in the right technique or leverage,” Harbaugh said. “…That’s probably the biggest thing to clean up. We got ourselves picked a few times (not) being in the right leverage.”
However, Michigan’s defensive inconsistencies weren’t isolated to the passing game. Maryland found success on the ground by committee, with four Terrapins tallying over 15 rushing yards for a total of 128 on the ground.
At times, Maryland’s offensive lineman proved stronger than the Wolverines’ defensive counterparts, pushing the pile and opening holes for its running backs and Tagovailoa. With the risk of a mobile quarterback paired with the threat of dangerous receivers, Michigan’s linebackers were often caught with their focus on the wrong weapon, resulting in opportunities in both offensive phases.
“We never want anybody running down our defense,” Colson said. “They got a couple big runs, a couple good runs; that’s something we’ve just gotta clean up, we’ve gotta stay square.”
The Wolverines’ day wasn’t without some positives. Senior defensive tackle Mazi Smith showed his incredible strength and an ability to penetrate, earning praise from Harbaugh after the game for his ability to get off his blocks. Additionally, Michigan’s defensive backs made some strong plays on the ball, highlighted by a pair of timely interceptions.
“We had guys like (fifth-year corner Gemon Green) early in the game making big plays breaking up balls, we had (senior corner DJ Turner) with the big interception, big momentum shift,” Sainristil said. “(Junior safety R.J. Moten) had one late in the game. We knew we were gonna get tested; they have really good receivers, fast receivers, couple of big body guys. We just knew that with the quarterback they have and the talent that they have, they were going to come out, throw the ball, and just test us down the field.”
Tested they were. Sometimes, the Wolverines passed with flying colors; other times, they raised questions about whether they could hang with better competition than their putrid non-conference schedule presented.
But the test of Michigan’s Big Ten season isn’t over. Each week from now through November, the Wolverines’ defense will be required to take another test, and all they can do now is study.
“We’ll just move onward,” Harbaugh said. “You know, (there are) things to improve.”