Before this season, the Big Ten announced that this week’s Michigan-Maryland football game would be an 8 p.m. kickoff. It appeared at the time that it might be a chance for Big Ten newcomer Maryland to knock off the Wolverines for a second straight year in their first visit to College Park.
Now, the night-game atmosphere is gone, and the Terrapins’ chances of an upset have dwindled as well.
Hurricane Joaquin, which could move through the mid-Atlantic on Saturday night, forced the conference to move the game up to noon. The two teams will take field moving in opposite directions, with No. 22 Michigan (3-1) coming off a 31-0 rout of Brigham Young and Maryland (2-2) limping from a 45-6 loss at West Virginia.
That makes the Wolverines a safer road bet than any time in recent memory. Suddenly, after struggling to pull away from average teams last season, Michigan is a heavy favorite this year.
Coming in as a favorite means the Wolverines must avoid disaster and eliminate variables, two tasks coach Jim Harbaugh has managed well this year.
Michigan has some room for error on Saturday, but the worst-case scenario is dropping a winnable game and leaving College Park at 0-1 in the Big Ten. To avoid that, fifth-year senior Jake Rudock must avoid turnovers and the defense must limit big plays.
In the former of those areas, Maryland has intercepted four passes and recovered just one fumble this season. On the other side, the Terrapins have four touchdown passes of at least 35 yards, but their true big-play threat is punt returner Will Likely, who — despite being a cornerback — has a team-high 489 all-purpose yards this season.
Some highlight-reel plays might be Maryland’s best chance to stay in the game, and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is on “high alert” in the special-teams game.
“The coverage units are going to have to be great, both the kickoff coverage and the punt coverage,” Harbaugh said Monday. “This return game that Maryland has is one of the best I’ve ever seen in college football, and so is their returner.
“It’s no secret, I’m just alerting everybody that we know. We know that they’re good, so great challenge for our coverage units this week. High alert.”
The Wolverines can do their best to control Maryland’s return game, but they can’t account for the intangibles, namely the road environment and the weather.
But Michigan doesn’t intend to let those factors affect the game. It will keep the game plan the same, even in heavy rain or gusty winds.
“We’re kind of a weatherproof team, I think, so it’s not something that we’re really concerned about,” said tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh on Wednesday. “We’ll play anywhere. We’ll play on the moon, or Mars. They found water there, so maybe that’s our next spot.”
Still, the conditions aren’t ideal for Michigan’s first-ever trip to College Park. The Wolverines lost last year’s meeting in Ann Arbor, 23-16, missing out on their sixth win. A loss at Ohio State the following week dashed their bowl hopes for good.
While it’s too early in the season for a must-win game, Maryland is in a similar position. The Terrapins have struggled this season and face question marks at several positions. It’s Michigan’s job to exploit them, just as it was Maryland’s last year.