Familiarly, Maryland football enters Big Ten play flying high after going undefeated in the nonconference portion of the schedule. The Terps eked out a win over SMU, 34-27, led on the offensive side of the ball by redshirt freshman running back Roman Hemby.
Hemby was not only incredibly effective running the ball — totaling 151 yards and a touchdown — but was a reliable option in the passing game as well, catching four passes for 62 yards and providing important protection for redshirt junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa.
Now, Maryland is faced with the task of a road trip to Ann Arbor to take on the No. 4 Michigan Wolverines, the defending Big Ten champions. The Terps have historically struggled to maintain their winning ways once they begin to face elite conference foes — see blowout losses to Penn State and Iowa during head coach Mike Locksley’s four-year tenure. This year, however, Maryland is looking to change that narrative behind what many believe to be the best team Locksley has presided over since returning to College Park.
“We have a lot of work to do still as a team, but I really like the direction this team is heading,” Locksley said. “I like the culture of the locker room.”
Michigan is a big favorite to come out on top against Maryland, favored by 17 points and -750 on the moneyline, according to DraftKings Sportsbook. The over/under is 64.5 total points.
The noon kickoff will be shown on FOX as a part of the network’s Big Noon Saturday.
No. 4 Michigan Wolverines (3-0)
2021 record: 12-2 (8-1 Big Ten)
In year seven under head coach Jim Harbaugh, Michigan finally broke through, defeating rival Ohio State for the first time since 2011 and winning the Big Ten title before falling to Georgia in the College Football Playoff semifinals. Now, with the monkey off his back, Harbaugh faces the challenge of keeping his program at that elite level and taking the next step to compete for national championships.
Coming into the season ranked No. 8 in the AP poll despite the losses of many key contributors — especially on the defensive side of the ball — the Wolverines are still one of the most talented teams in the country and seem to be Ohio State’s top challenger for the conference championship once again. They now stand at 3-0 and have risen to the nation’s No. 4 ranking after a cakewalk nonconference slate of Colorado State, Hawaii and UConn, but much remains to be seen about Michigan’s viability as a legitimate national contender. More will come to light following Saturday’s matchup with the Terps.
Players to watch
J.J. McCarthy, sophomore quarterback, No. 9 — A former five-star recruit, McCarthy played a secondary role behind Cade McNamara last season before winning the starting job this year. He is one of the most talented quarterbacks in the Big Ten and is looking to break out this year as the Wolverines’ offensive leader. Through three games (he started the last two), McCarthy has completed 30-of-34 passes for 473 yards and three touchdowns, although he would have more eye-popping numbers if Michigan didn’t rest him toward the end of their blowout wins. He is also an athletic runner, so Maryland will have its hands full in McCarthy’s first career Big Ten start.
“J.J. is an explosive playmaker with his feet and his arm,” Locksley said. “They will feature the quarterback run — because of that ability they play to his strengths — but he has also shown the propensity that when you commit to stopping him as a runner he can take the shots that come off the play-actions down the field.”
Blake Corum, junior running back, No. 2 — Corum, who played high school football in Baltimore at St. Frances Academy, is currently tied for the national lead with seven rushing touchdowns this season. Five of those seven scores came in the Wolverines’ last game against UConn, the longest of which was 20 yards. With fellow running back Donovan Edwards nursing a leg injury, Corum is Michigan’s top option out of the backfield and carries much of the responsibility running the ball.
Mazi Smith, senior defensive lineman, No. 58 — Following the departures of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo to the NFL, the Wolverines have questions about their front seven. While they are still looking for another elite edge rusher, Mazi Smith gives them a solid piece on the interior. A 2021 All-Big Ten honorable mention, Smith’s six-foot-three, 337-pound frame allows him to swallow up rushers while still providing a threat to opposing quarterbacks. He had an 11-yard sack in the season opener against Colorado State.
DJ Turner, senior defensive back, No. 5 — The cornerstone of Michigan’s secondary, Turner, like Smith, was an All-Big Ten honorable mention a season ago. In 2021, Turner had nine passes broken up and two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown against the Terps. He’s already found the end zone again this season, returning a fumble 45 yards for a touchdown in Michigan’s first game. If Tagovailoa and Maryland are going to air the ball out Saturday, they’ll need to keep an eye on Turner at all times.
Balanced offense. Through three games this season, Michigan has had a remarkably balanced offensive attack. After the departure of primary play-caller Josh Gattis to Miami, Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss are splitting offensive coordinator duties and have been effective in moving the ball in the air and on the ground. Michigan is throwing the ball just over 40% of the time, but that number will likely rise closer to 50% as the team gets into more competitive Big Ten play. McCarthy’s athletic skillset allows the Wolverines to open up the offense more than last year, which promises to make them more explosive and harder to defend. If everything clicks, Michigan can compete with the top teams in the country.
“They’ve got a lot of playmakers and their O-line is very strong and, you know, very big,” Maryland sophomore safety Dante Trader Jr. said. “They can run the ball willingly and pass the ball willingly so you’ve got to be able to stop everything.”
Nonconference strength of schedule. It would’ve been a challenge for Michigan to schedule a weaker out-of-conference schedule compliant with the Big Ten’s rules regarding FCS opponents. Colorado State, Hawaii and UConn all rank in the bottom 11 teams in the FBS, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, and Michigan won’t play a game away from Ann Arbor until next week when they face Iowa. To be fair, the Wolverines blew out all three opponents in convincing fashion — winning by an average of 49.7 points — but are entirely untested heading into Big Ten play.
Three things to watch
1. Will the Terps bring more pressure? When the Terps rushed four or more players against SMU, they had some success. This didn’t happen much, though, as defensive coordinator Brian Williams generally stuck to his 3-4 scheme and dropped his linebackers into coverage rather than rushing the passer. To beat Michigan, Maryland is going to need to throw the Wolverines some curveballs and catch them off guard. Upping the number of blitzes may be a way to keep them from getting too comfortable.
2. Can the Terps’ defense bend without breaking? Against the best offense it’s seen so far, Maryland’s defense was able to limit SMU’s scoring but was unable to prevent the Mustangs from moving the ball. SMU tallied 520 yards of total offense on 96 plays but only managed seven second-half points. The Terps managed to force three timely turnovers, stunting the Mustangs’ momentum. It would be surprising to see Maryland shut down Michigan’s offense, so it will need to continue to force turnovers and make red zone stops to stay competitive.
3. Can Maryland remedy its penalty problem? In short, Maryland will get run out of Ann Arbor if it has similar discipline issues to last week’s game against SMU. The Terps were able to overcome their 141 penalty yards against the Mustangs, but Michigan is an entirely different beast and will put gaudy numbers on the scoreboard if it is given free yards. It’s a gargantuan task for Maryland to come out of Saturday’s game with a victory, but any hope it may have goes out the window if the Wolverines are able to extend drives or force field goals and punts instead of touchdowns.
“I’ve got to get them to understand that the name on the front of the jersey represents us and we’ve got to continue to work to do better,” Locksley said of his team’s discipline.
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