On Saturday, the Michigan football team is back home, where it has dominated all three of its opponents this season.
The last of these opponents was Nebraska, which the Wolverines drubbed, 56-10, in a game that was essentially over halfway through the first quarter. But last week, Michigan traveled to Northwestern — a team coming off a bye — and nearly threw away its season before coming back to win, 20-17.
The Wolverines’ opponent this weekend is also coming off a bye and has the capability to give them challenges. Maryland defeated now-No.19 Texas in its season opener and is 3-1 to start the year.
That’s all under interim coach Matt Canada, who took over for D.J. Durkin in August after the tragic death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair. Durkin was Michigan’s defensive coordinator in 2015 before leaving for the Terrapins.
With Durkin still on administrative leave, the only other focus is Saturday’s game. Here’s what to watch for.
Just as they did against SMU, the Wolverines struggled against the slant and mesh patterns last week. According to defensive coordinator Don Brown, Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson went 3-of-5 for 23 yards in the first half and 2-of-4 for 22 yards on such plays.
The key difference is that Michigan was able to stymie Thorson as the game went on. The Wildcats didn’t score after jumping out to a 17-0 lead, as the Wolverines allowed just 119 yards the last three quarters.
Still, teams have smartly looked to take advantage of those slants against Michigan. Brown’s defense is predicated on getting free rushers on the quarterback, which often requires linebackers to push rush, leaving the middle of the field open. The slant is the perfect pattern to take advantage.
But Brown isn’t all too concerned, noting Thorson’s ability to fit passes into tight spots.
“I thought Thorson was pretty good,” Brown said Wednesday. “He’s going to end up graduating, I would bet, as one of the top-25 throwers probably in the history of the Big Ten. There are two catches … where he puts it into a window about this big. (But) I’m not going to stand here and say, ‘Jeez, we did a great job.’ ”
Though the Wolverines found success with more press coverage later on against the Wildcats, slants could be a large part of Maryland’s game plan Saturday.
Rashan Gary’s health
Like the team itself, Rashan Gary had one of his best quarters of the season two weeks ago. The junior defensive end manhandled Nebraska’s offensive tackles and earned his first sack of the season in the first quarter.
But he left the game soon after and didn’t return. Based upon exercises he did with trainers on the sideline, it looked to be a shoulder or arm injury.
Gary brushed it off publicly last week, but the injury bug bit him again in Evanston. He left the game and went to the locker room during the third quarter — though he did return eventually.
Gary is “questionable” to play Saturday.
“He’s day-to-day, so we'll see,” Brown said. “Not really sure right now. (We’ll) let the trainers see if they can put him back together for the weekend.”
If Gary can’t go, sophomore Kwity Paye or freshman Aidan Hutchinson would likely earn their first career starts. Both have played well recently: Paye collected two sacks last week, while Hutchinson earned three tackles — one for a loss — against the Cornhuskers.
“Kwity Paye certainly has stood up when we've needed him to stand up, along with the other guys,” Brown said.
It was interesting to see Ronnie Bell receive a jet sweep on Michigan’s second play from scrimmage last week. The freshman receiver had been previously featured mostly in the second half of blowouts, with redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffery under center instead of junior Shea Patterson.
But Bell played ahead of redshirt freshman Oliver Martin on Saturday — a major surprise considering Bell had no Division I football offers at this time last year.
Elsewhere in the position group, Harbaugh said he hopes to get junior receiver Nate Schoenle back this weekend. Schoenle earned a scholarship at the end of fall camp after catching four passes for 41 yards in 2017.
Though he’s unlikely to play this week, freshman Michael Barrett has moved to receiver after practicing at VIPER during fall camp, according to coach Jim Harbaugh.
Prediction: Michigan 31, Maryland 17