The way Shea Patterson contorted his body to set up his throw could be considered inadvisable. But it was good enough to find the end zone.
From the Maryland 22-yard line, with 16 seconds left in the first half, Patterson passed across his body to hit a crossing Ronnie Bell right on the numbers, and the freshman wide receiver stumbled his way in for the touchdown.
“How about my guy Ronnie Bell making the tough catch across the middle,” said coach Jim Harbaugh. “It takes guys years, sometimes decades or decades to have that kind of fearless and ability to catch a ball over the middle, and not only catch it but finish it.”
The score set the No. 15 Michigan football team up with a two-possession lead into halftime and the beginning of a runaway against the Terrapins. The Wolverines (3-0 Big Ten, 5-1 overall) would outgain Maryland, 465 to 220 yards, on Saturday afternoon en route to a 42-21 victory.
The contest against the Terrapins (1-1, 3-2) was originally in doubt with overcast skies delaying the game 70 minutes. A sopping field beget a ground-and-pound strategy from Michigan out of the gate. Senior running back Karan Higdon finished the day with 25 carries — 19 in the first half — for 103 yards. Sophomore fullback Ben Mason had five carries — three to convert short-yardage first downs — and the Wolverines’ first score of the day.
But Mason’s day was summarized by his highlight reel play. After receiving a pass in the flat, Mason turned upfield and hurdled a defender for a 15-yard reception.
“I saw it on his high school tape and I didn’t think I’d see it again,” said sophomore center Cesar Ruiz. “I saw it out of the corner of my eye today. I had to look at the video screen and make sure.”
Maryland, on the other hand, couldn’t pull any stunts — it hardly had time to develop any semblance of an offensive strategy. Michigan’s defense allowed just 42 yards in the first half, with the Terrapins’ only points coming on a 98-yard kickoff return. For the game, quarterbacks Kasim Hill and Tyrrell Pigrome combined to complete seven of 13 attempts for 73 yards and a pick.
“It was really an epic defensive performance,” Harbaugh said. “We got a little thin toward the end of the game, but it was a great job, great performance. This Maryland team has a very potent running game. … We’d seen it on tape, a lot of misdirection, a lot of eye distraction and ability to open up seams, lots of longs runs — we didn’t give those up today.”
Despite a depleted defensive line — Rashan Gary and Aubrey Solomon were sidelined with injuries, and Michael Dwumfour exited in the second quarter with a non-contact injury — the Wolverines’ front seven wreaked havoc all afternoon. Dwumfour recorded a sack before his early departure, and junior VIPER Khaleke Hudson had his first sack of the year. And in garbage time, fifth-year senior cornerback Brandon Watson returned an interception to the house.
The absent interior was certainly missed on Maryland’s final drive, though. Pigrome took off for a 41-yard run as well as a five-yard rushing touchdown up the middle.
“There has been a couple bang-ups on the d-line,” Hudson said. “But we just trust in the backups to come in and do what they gotta do and work hard and get the job done. The linebackers are doing what we’ve gotta do and the safeties counter off of that.”
And despite those few lapses, Patterson quietly kept the offense humming on Saturday, his theatrics not limited to Bell’s touchdown. With 2:15 left in the third quarter, Patterson spun away from two-man pressure — what Harbaugh called a “whirly bird” — to find Donovan Peoples-Jones open down the right sideline with running room for a 34-yard touchdown.
The junior quarterback finished the day 19-for-27 for three touchdowns and 282 yards, surpassing his season-high in passing yards on the throw to Peoples-Jones. Junior tight end Zach Gentry also had a career day as Patterson’s go-to, grabbing highs of seven receptions for 112 yards.
“It was players making plays today,” Harbaugh said. “That’s really what I saw, starting with Shea. Guys just making plays. Gentry making plays, finding seams, making the catches. … It was really the theme through this game: players making plays.”
Saturday’s game hardly made any declarative statements about Michigan’s potential headed into the second half of the season. But strides in the offensive line portended confidence with an impending three-game slate against No. 18 Wisconsin, No. 20 Michigan State and No. 11 Penn State. Patterson stayed upright the whole contest, and the ground game managed 171 yards, 4.3 per carry.
“Offensive line is playing well,” Harbaugh said. “(Offensive line coach) Ed Warinner is doing a heck of a job with those guys. I think they’re all playing their best football, starting from Jon Runyan, Ben Bredeson, Cesar Ruiz, Mike Onwenu, and Juwann (Bushell-Beatty). (They) are all playing their best football and playing well together.”
The Wolverines could very well hit the reset button in the week against stiffer competition. After all, Ben Mason hurdles and Shea Patterson “whirly birds” are far from a given. But you would be hard-pressed to question a setback based on Saturday’s blowout.