For Michigan football, the next three weeks should serve as a steady march to the one that really matters — No. 3 Ohio State’s visit to Ann Arbor on November 30.
Until then, it’s a simple matter of proving that the Wolverines’ last six quarters — in which they’ve outscored a pair of top-10 opponents, 59-21 — are no mirage and that maybe, somehow, this is the year Michigan can finally take down the vaunted Buckeyes. Against Michigan State and a quietly 6-2 Indiana, that will be a challenge. Both teams, despite their flaws, carry enough weaponry to challenge the Wolverines’ presumed growth, even in losses.
Against Maryland, there should be no such troubles. Once the surprise of early September behind an unexpectedly explosive offense, the Terrapins have lost five of their last six games, their starting quarterback and any positivity this season once carried.
But in Michigan’s three road games this season, reality has rarely matched lofty expectations. Even as a 20-point favorite at Illinois three weeks ago, the Wolverines nearly squandered a 28-point second-quarter lead, leaving Champaign with more questions than answers.
As Michigan looks to avoid doing the same in College Park on Saturday, The Daily breaks down what to watch for:
Michigan’s offensive balance
All offseason, the promise for Michigan’s offense was “speed in space.”
The Wolverines’ pound-it-down-your-throat, pro-style offense from Jim Harbaugh’s first four years was dismissed as the antiquated style of football that could win you 10 games, but carried a capped ceiling. With Shea Patterson under center and a trio of supremely talented junior receivers catching the ball, the personnel was perfect to install a spread offense and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, newly arrived from Alabama, was just the man to carry it out.
So, naturally, Michigan’s run/pass split in last week’s 45-14 win over Notre Dame — easily its most impressive performance of the season — was 14 pass attempts, 57 carries. That game, of course, carried the caveat of starting in a torrential downpour and finishing with the Wolverines running out the clock on a shocking blowout.
The trend, though, has footing in the beginning of Michigan’s recent turnaround. After attempting 12 passes and six carries in the first quarter against Penn State two weeks ago, the Wolverines ran more times than they passed in the second half, even as they attempted to climb out of a 21-0 hole.
Against Maryland, the final split will likely match last week’s imbalance regardless of gameplan, thanks to game script. But in the first quarter, before the game devolves into a blowout, watch for Michigan’s new-meets-old offensive identity.
Hassan Haskins’ growth
At the center of Michigan’s reborn faith in its run game is redshirt freshman running back Hassan Haskins.
All season, the headlines — at least when it comes to the Wolverines’ running backs — have surrounded Zach Charbonnet, the freshman sensation whose nine touchdowns are tied-most for a Michigan freshman. And Charbonnet, regardless of how this season ends, is the future at the position.
But despite Charbonnet’s 4.9 yards per carry, Michigan’s coaches have continually expressed a desire to share the workload at running back. The problem through five games was that no one stepped up.
Tru Wilson broke his hand in the season-opener and has struggled to regain form. Christian Turner lost the coaching staff’s faith in pass protection, regained it and started fumbling. Ben VanSumeren has nine carries for 20 yards.
Now, in Haskins, the Wolverines finally seem to have found a viable second option, punctuated by two 100-yard performances in his last three games.
And that, as good as Charbonnet may be, is what makes running 50 times a game possible.
Can the defense get its second shutout of the year?
Normally, in this section, I write something about what Michigan can prove going forward.
The problem is, playing Maryland doesn’t provide the opportunity to do much of that. The Terrapins are missing starting quarterback Josh Jackson and have scored more than 17 points just twice in their last six games.
To really prove something against Maryland, the Wolverines will have to do something that’s eluded them in back-to-back impressive performances: avoid mistakes and shut out the opposition. And sure, the Terrapins’ offense isn’t the same as Penn State’s or Notre Dame’s, but neither is Illinois’ and Michigan gave up 25 points to the Fighting Illini.
The common thread between all three of those games has been minor defensive lapses — such as the missed communication on Penn State’s game-winning touchdown — that sullied the final scores of otherwise-shutdown showings.
Doing the same thing against Maryland won’t spell disaster. Winning 49-0 or 49-14 means little in the grand scheme of things. Doing the same thing a month from now — or even against Indiana’s potent offense — could bring the same ending as it did in State College.
Michigan, as has been established by now, should have little trouble taking care of Maryland. The question for the Wolverines is where Saturday afternoon falls on the spectrum of a 42-25 escape against Illinois to a 52-0 rout over Rutgers. Given the dominance this team has displayed on both sides of the ball over its last six quarters, I’m taking the latter.
Prediction: Michigan 45-3