For weeks, the discourse around the Michigan football team has been about its soft non-conference schedule. Three consecutive opponents posed little to no threat to even test the Wolverines. Many wondered what they would look like when they finally faced a “real” opponent that could actually contend for the victory.
Against Maryland, Michigan certainly received that challenge.
The fourth-ranked Wolverines (4-0 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) wobbled but eventually righted themselves to beat the Terrapins (3-1, 0-1), 34-27, in their Big Ten opener.
“I mean, you learn more as you go, right,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Every single game, every single test, you learn more about your team (and) you’ll learn more about yourself as a player.”
On Saturday, Michigan learned how to win a tight game. It learned how to get back up after getting knocked to the ground. And, though it was ugly at times, it learned those lessons while remaining undefeated.
Outside of the opening seconds when Maryland muffed the kickoff and Michigan scored immediately, the Terrapins controlled the first half. They handled the Wolverines’ defensive line, play after play. And led by quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland’s offense consistently stayed ahead of schedule on its drives, racking up good chunks of yardage on first down leading to short second and third down situations.
Finally, Michigan’s defense was tested, and throughout the entire game, it showed cracks.
“When situations like that come up where the defense just really has to step up, stick in there and just stay together, our message was just keep fighting,” senior defensive back Mike Sainristil said. “Keep making plays don’t give them anything.”
But the Wolverines’ defense let Maryland march down the field in chunks, certainly exposed to the harsh realities of conference play. In the second quarter, after a floundering offensive possession, the Wolverines once again let Maryland easily get into field goal range and secure three points. For the first time all season, Michigan trailed, 13-10.
In the waning seconds of the first half, the Wolverines responded with a 33-yard fourth-down touchdown scamper from junior running back Blake Corum to retake the lead. But they were still bleeding.
The Terrapins landed punches in the first half and knocked Michigan onto its heals but they couldn’t overcome a few key plays: The opening muff and an interception by senior cornerback DJ Turner that appeared to hit the ground, to name a pair.
Whether it was because of the jump in competition or because of simply playing poorly, Michigan looked out of sync nearly the entire game. Sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy looked human for the first time this season, fumbling twice and missing on the majority of his deep balls.
After the game, McCarthy was still smiling, but he recognized his struggles and put much of the onus on him. There were a myriad of throws he “wanted back” and he deemed Saturday not his “best performance,” but then he pivoted.
“That was a good team out there,” McCarthy said. “Maryland’s got a great defense, they got a great offense and I’m just happy with the way we responded when some adversity creeped in.”
A three-point deficit may not seem like the most adverse situation, but for a Michigan team that outscored its opponents 166-17 through its first three games, it was certainly more than it had experienced.
Of course in the end they responded. As the Wolverines had seemingly for the entire game, they did just enough to stay ahead and keep control. Junior defensive back R.J. Moten bobbled and then caught a practically game-sealing interception, and Corum placed an exclamation point on the game just moments later, finishing off his herculean day — 30 carries and 243 rushing yards — with a 47-yard touchdown.
But the Wolverines were forced to play in a contentious second half, one where the game’s outcome was still unknown well into the fourth quarter.
Michigan did not look like the world-killers that the first three weeks of the season had painted itself as. But it survived its first test of the season, albeit not with flying colors.
Perhaps the next time the Wolverines face adversity, they’ll show that they learned a thing or two.