After a humiliating loss to West Virginia in Morgantown last weekend, Maryland returns home to College Park Saturday to face the Jim Harbaugh coached Michigan Wolverines. The game, which was originally scheduled to kickoff at 8:00 PM and feature the Big Ten Network hosting pregame coverage on Maryland's campus leading up to the game, has been moved to a noon start time due to the threat posed by Hurricane Joaquin. The Big Ten Network, prior to the changed kickoff time, decided to postpone their pregame coverage from College Park as a result of the inclement weather threat as well. All of those changes mean that a game that would have featured an electric, prime-time crowd will now become much more ordinary and less exciting.
I had an opportunity to talk with Drew Hallett, who is one of the editors at SBNation's Michigan Blog, Maize N Brew. Be sure to check them out when you have a chance and thanks to Drew for taking the time to answer these questions.
Drew had some questions for me as well about Saturday's game, which you can check out here.
Testudo Times: So you got that Jim Harbaugh guy running the show now.On a scale of 1-10, what's the mood like in Ann Arbor these days?
Maize N Brew: It's a 12, though Jim Harbaugh would chastise me for compromising mathematical principles. Michigan fans were ecstatic back in December when reports began to surface that Harbaugh would leave the NFL to become Michigan's head coach. Michigan has been mired in mediocrity for a decade -- the Wolverines haven't won a Big Ten title since 2004, which is their longest championship drought since the 1960s -- and needed someone to pull it out of this rut after hiring two coaches in Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke that didn't survive more than four years.
Harbaugh fit the job description. Yes, he was raised in Ann Arbor and was a former Michigan great at quarterback, but what really mattered was how fast he turned around his program or franchise at each stop as a head coach. At the University of San Diego, he led the Toreros to back-to-back 11-1 seasons in his second and third years there, which remain the best in school history. In four years at Stanford, he transformed an 1-11 program into a Orange Bowl champion and perennial Pac-12 contender. And, in San Francisco, he guided a 49ers franchise that had a win percentage of 35.9 percent the prior eight seasons to three straight NFC Championship Games, including one Super Bowl appearance. Michigan needed a similar type of turnaround, so hiring Harbaugh, who's one of the best at it, inspired hope in the fans.
And, after last week's 31-0 win vs. then-No. 22 BYU, Michigan fans are quite giddy.
TT: What were the expectations for Michigan coming into the season? How have those changed over the past two weeks, especially after the dominant win over BYU last week?
MNB: Before the season, most analysts and fans had Michigan pegged at 8-4. I was between 8-4 and 7-5 and settled on the latter. And then there were the fans that were hyped and counting on #TheHarbaughEffect to push Michigan to a nine- or 10-win record. I know that Harbaugh is a fantastic coach, but I thought it would take two or three years before everything began to click on all cylinders. I thought this because he inherited a Michigan team that was a bad 5-7 in 2014. I mean, the Wolverines were a few points away from being 3-9 with wins over just Appalachian State, Miami (OH), and Zander Diamont-led Indiana. Yikes. How can one expect a team like that to rebound and become a contender in just one season, particularly when the offense -- only 82nd in S&P+ in 2014 -- had question marks at every position except tight end? Such a turnaround seemed unlikely, and the schedule didn't help with prime-time road games against Utah, Maryland, Minnesota, and Penn State, and home games against Ohio State and Michigan State. I expected this to be a transition year to lay the foundation for 2016.
But expectations have shifted for the better after last Saturday. What Michigan did to BYU was not suitable for children's eyes. The Wolverines scored on five straight possessions in the first half to leap to a 31-0 lead, and the Cougars didn't crack 100 total yards until the final minute of the fourth quarter. It was the football version of a snuff film. Except Michigan didn't do it to some poor FCS program. Michigan did it to a ranked team that beat Nebraska and Boise State on Hail Josephs before taking UCLA to the wire at the Rose Bowl.
And, to further raise expectations, Utah annihilated Oregon in Autzen Stadium, 62-20. Suddenly, Michigan's 24-17 loss to the Utes in Salt Lake City in Week 1 has a lot more polish to it than the week before, while Michigan State's three-point home win over the Ducks is a bit more marred. Add in that Oregon State -- a team that Michigan beat by a 35-7 score and held to 138 yards -- hung in with Stanford before the Cardinal pulled away late, and, because the law of transitive property is always true in college football, Michigan could be a contender.
I won't say that Michigan will win the Big Ten East, but a 9-3 (6-2 B1G) record? Doable.
TT: Speaking of BYU, what happened last week? How did Michigan totally dominate a pretty good BYU team on both sides of the ball, holding them to 105 total yards?
MNB: Offensively, I wouldn't say that Michigan dominated, which is a strange thing to say when the Wolverines scored 31 first-half points on five straight drives. Still adjusting to its new man-blocking schemes under Jim Harbaugh, the ground game continues to improve each week. Removing sacks and scrambles, this was the third straight week that Michigan rushed for over 200 yards and averaged more than five yards per carry. The Wolverines weren't as efficient as they would like to be on a down-to-down basis, especially since BYU's star nose tackle, Travis Tuiloma, was absent with a knee injury, but they benefited from two explosive runs by De'Veon Smith -- a 31-yarder and a 60-yarder that was a featured highlight on SportsCenter. It also didn't hurt that Jake Rudock had his best game in the maize and blue, recording three touchdowns -- one pass, two scrambles -- and no turnovers. However, there still is lots of room for improvement for Rudock. When he drops back, he's not seeing the entire field and struggles with his progression after the first read. Against BYU, there were at least three plays when he missed a wide-open receiver who would have gained no fewer than 20 yards, including what would have been a 75-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. Nonetheless, the unit continues to improve, and Harbaugh continues to tinker with his plays and schemes.
On the other hand, defensively, Michigan suffocated BYU. It wasn't a fluke, and it wasn't because the Cougars were exhausted after riding an emotional roller-coaster the first three weeks. If you re-watch the film, you recognize that BYU left no points and no yards on the field. It was about as perfect of a defensive performance as you will see against an offense that averaged over 30 points and 400 yards per game beforehand. I mean, BYU had six straight three-and-outs that spanned the second and third quarters, and not once did the Cougars drive deeper into Michigan territory than the 33-yard line. So how did Michigan do this? Michigan deployed its dime package against BYU's spread-to-pass packages. The Wolverines basically said that they didn't think BYU could run against their five-man box or that BYU's receivers could separate from their defensive backs, who were in press man coverage. And they were right. Michigan's defensive line, which rotates seven starting-caliber players, dominated the line of scrimmage and rattled freshman quarterback Tanner Mangum to the point where he was running in circles in clean pockets, while the defensive backs stuck to BYU's receivers like glue. Rarely was anything open downfield, and Mangum's only completion longer than 10 yards -- a 14-yarder -- slipped right through the hands of Michigan's Channing Stribling.
I'm honestly not sure I've seen anything like that before.
TT: De'Veon Smith had a great game. including an amazing run that turned from a pile up to a touchdown last week. How can Maryland slow him down Saturday? Is there anyone else Maryland fans need to worry about?
MNB: Maryland may not see De'Veon Smith on Saturday, though it looks more probable by the day that it will. Smith exited from the BYU game with an ankle injury and wore a boot afterwards. The boot was said to be a precaution, and it's been confirmed that Smith has practiced this week. If Smith does compete, he still will be a mean runner like he always is. He likes to punish defenders, running through them and over them rather than around them. He does this because he has a strong upper body that can deliver pain and legs that keep churning after contact. However, even though Smith had two 30-plus-yard runs against BYU, he's not an explosive runner. He lacks top-end speed and the vision and agility to open holes for himself -- though he did do it once versus the Cougars. Accordingly, Smith needs his offensive line to push forward at the line of scrimmage and generate the holes for him. The best way to defend this and slow down Smith is to load the box.
There are two other Wolverines on offense on which Maryland fans should keep an eye. The first is wide receiver Amara Darboh (20 rec., 242 yards, 2 TD). With Devin Funchess' early departure to the NFL, Darboh has become Michigan's No. 1 receiver. And he also has become Jake Rudock's favorite option, leading Michigan with 32 targets through four games. The Wolverines try to get Darboh the ball on shorter routes. He uses his big body to shield off defensive backs on slants and hitches and has enough speed to be effective on screens. However, he doesn't have the speed to torch defenses over the top. Nonetheless, as he demonstrated with his one-handed, Odell Beckham, Jr.-style grab against BYU, if Rudock puts the ball in his vicinity on a longer ball, he has the hands to haul it in. The second Wolverine is tight end Jake Butt (15 rec., 173 yards, TD). He's one of the better tight ends in the nation, though his numbers the past three games wouldn't show it. After a strong season debut against Utah (8 rec., 93 yards, TD), defenses have devoted extra attention to him. Plus, Rudock's own struggles haven't helped Butt's statistics. But Butt can be a significant weapon over the middle and on out routes if Maryland isn't prepared.
Defensively, the unit has been outstanding, so it's hard to single out specific names. I could go on for paragraphs discussing Ryan Glasgow's path from walk-on to stud defensive tackle or defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, Jr.'s fantastic first step off the snap. But this is a Q&A, not a thesis. So, if I had to choose just one, I'd select corner Jourdan Lewis. After a breakout sophomore season in 2014, he has developed into one of the Big Ten's best corners. He flourishes in Michigan's press man scheme, showcasing his ability to jam receivers at the line, disrupt the timing of their routes, and stay on their hip step for step. Quarterbacks have not tested him often thus far, but, when they have, the result usually is an incompletion as Lewis has yet to secure an interception in 2015. This isn't to say he can't be beaten. He has. Oregon State's Seth Collins threw a touchdown pass against Lewis, but it took a perfect throw to do it. Given that Caleb Rowe just went 10-of-27 for 67 yards and four picks against West Virginia, I don't think Rowe has many perfect balls in him. If not, Lewis may snag that first interception.
TT: There is a possibility we could see a lot of rain, potentially of the tropical, downpour variety. How would a heavy rain impact Michigan's ability to be effective on offense?
MNB: Such inclement weather must have an impact, but I don't know if it would be drastic. Michigan's offense likes to run the ball, and it likes to run the ball out of heavy formations with Jake Rudock under center. This isn't an offense that is predicated on shotgun snaps and downfield passes, which can be problematic in downpours when the ball is slippery. Nonetheless, there always will be a concern about turnovers in this weather. Rudock didn't turn it over once against BYU, but he did have six in the first three games -- five interceptions, one fumble. Rudock's ball security can be an issue, and it could neutralize the playing field between Michigan and Maryland. So it's certainly something to watch.
TT: Fill in the blanks: _________ will beat _________________ because of ______________.
MNB: Michigan will beat Maryland because Michigan has an elite defense. By almost any metric you choose, Michigan has one of the best defenses in the nation. The Wolverines are second in total defense (203.8 YPG), third in yards allowed per play (3.47 YPP), tied for fourth in scoring defense (9.5 PPG), and fourth in S&P+'s opponent-adjusted rating. Further, this is what Michigan's defense has done to the last three offenses it has faced: Oregon State tallied just 138 total yards and only two in the final three quarters, UNLV mustered only 111 yards in the first three quarters before inflating its total in garbage time, and BYU just scraped above 100 yards thanks to its final drive. I know Maryland has had success running the football -- 15th in YPC and 19th in S&P+ -- but Michigan's run defense is its strength (10th in S&P+). And, given the problems Maryland has had at quarterback, I don't think the Terrapins have the personnel to beat Michigan through the air.
As long as Michigan doesn't punt to Will Likely, I'm not sure how Maryland will score points, particularly because there should be hurricane-like conditions not too far off the shore. However, those conditions will affect Michigan's offense as well. Michigan may like to run the ball, but it is Maryland's secondary that has been gashed most by opponents. If Michigan can't attack that area because of the wind and rain, points may be at more of a premium. Plus, this will be a road game for Michigan, and those have not gone well for the Wolverines in recent seasons. All of this suggests that this game could be closer than we may imagine. I'm not sure if that's true, but it'll be a low-scoring affair.
Michigan 24, Maryland 6.
Thanks again to Drew and be sure to check out my Q&A with them over at Maize N Brew.