COLLEGE PARK — In 1879, when Irving Kane Pond crossed the goal line for the first touchdown in Michigan history, none could have imagined what was to come.
After 144 years, 11 national championships and 44 Big Ten Championships, the No. 3 Michigan football team is the first to reach a once-unfathomable number.
Achieving their first back-to-back 11-0 start since 1901-02, the Wolverines made history in more ways than one on Saturday. Bolstered by clutch defensive moments, Michigan (11-0 overall, 8-0 Big Ten) survived a 31-24 blowout-turned-shootout against a quick hitting Maryland (6-5, 3-5) offense that refused to fold. The Wolverines indeed notched their 1000th win, but not in expected fashion.
“We knew it was gonna be a fight regardless,” Michigan acting head coach Sherrone Moore said. “We got up and it’s not like our kids let up, because those guys fought back. They did a really good job, but I thought our guys responded well at the right time. Our defense stepped up in key situations.”
After surrendering the first score of the game to go down 3-0, the Wolverines’ defense stepped up early. Returning a forced fumble for a touchdown and blocking a punt that Maryland then kicked out of the endzone for a safety, Michigan had the Terrapins reeling early. The Wolverines notched 23 straight unanswered points, ballooning the score to 23-3.
Maryland would not go quietly into the night though.
After a rocky start, the Terrapins rallied, notching a touchdown on their final drive before half time. On the ensuing drive coming out of the break, Maryland quickly scored again. Leading 23-17, the Wolverines’ defense surrendered their first points in any third quarter this season and found themselves in their tightest game thus far. Suddenly, it was Michigan who was on the backfoot, struggling to maintain control in a game that had rapidly turned chaotic.
Collapsing without the steady hand of coach Jim Harbaugh, it took a different veteran to bail out the Wolverines.
Jumping a mistimed ball, graduate defensive back Mike Sainristil temporarily revived a previously dormant defense. Snagging an interception, the momentary change of pace allowed Michigan to breathe amid the frantic scene.
“He a damn dog man,” graduate linebacker Michael Barrett said. “He a dog bro. Especially in those clutch moments, whenever we needed it.”
Putting the ball back in the hands of junior quarterback J.J. McCarthy and the offense with seven minutes left in the third quarter, the Wolverines had the opportunity to turn the tide. In one of their only complete offensive drives of the day they attempted to do just that. As freshman receiver Semaj Morgan raced into the endzone for a rushing touchdown, Michigan had taken a 29-17 lead.
And then the Terrapins delivered a gut punch.
Tagovailoa came right back, delivering two explosive passing strikes as Maryland pulled within five on its third tush-push touchdown of the day. A once dominant Michigan defense had seemingly lost its swagger. A Terrapins group that trudged in with four losses in its last five games resembled the one that had given No. 2 Ohio State palpitations in Columbus earlier in the season. Maryland was charging and its opposite seemingly had no answer.
But when called upon, the Wolverines’ defense stepped up yet again.
“(Mike Sainristil and I) talk to each other all the time, telling (him) this our team, we came back for a reason,” Barrett said. “We gotta be those tone setters. Make those tone setting plays, especially when things aren’t going our way.”
And who else to set the tone other than Sainristil. As Tagovailoa heaved a third-and-18 try from his own two-yard line, Sainrsitil sat under the ball and plucked it out of the air for his second interception of the game. With another clutch play, Michigan’s defense had set up yet another opportunity for its offense to pull away. But it could not.
After another offensive three and out, the Wolverines called upon their defense for one final lifeline — and again, they came through. Pinned at their one-yard line courtesy of an exceptional punt by junior Tommy Doman, the Terrapins had one more shot.
If Michigan’s offense couldn’t close the door though, its defense had to. Forcing an intentional grounding in the endzone for a safety, the Wolverines’ defense scored its ninth and 10th points of the day, sealing the 1000th win in Michigan history.
It was an ugly day in College Park for the Wolverines. Seemingly stuck in a trap, it required clutch defensive moments for Michigan to escape with a win.
But a win it was. And 144 years and 60 minutes later, the Wolverines wrote their name in the history books once more.