Terps Game Preview: #2 Michigan
Opponent: Michigan Wolverines (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten Conference)
Location: Michigan Stadium (107,601)
Date: Saturday, November 5, 2016
Time: 3:30 PM ET
TV/Radio Broadcasts: ESPN, Maryland Sports Radio Network
Series Record: 4-1 Michigan
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The Wolverines enter this game as one of the five remaining undefeated teams in college football. They are off to their best start since 2006, and currently stand at #3 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Jim Harbaugh is in his second season as Michigan’s head coach, and has successfully brought the program back to national prominence. Last season, he led the team to a 10-win season and a Citrus Bowl victory over Florida.
There are plenty of connections between these two coaching staffs, which has made for some interesting storylines this week. Maryland head coach DJ Durkin came to College Park from Michigan, where he served as Harbaugh’s defensive coordinator last season. He and Harbaugh also coached together at Stanford from 2007-2009. Durkin’s replacement on Harbaugh’s staff is Don Brown, who was Maryland’s defensive coordinator from 2009-2010 under former head coach Ralph Friedgen. And while it isn’t a connection between the two coaching staffs, Harbaugh’s brother John is the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, and Jim played quarterback for the Ravens in 1998.
The Wolverines are one of the few teams in college football who still run a true pro-style offense. Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Tim Drevno coached together at Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers, and run their own version of the “Power Coast” offense, which features a power-based running game paired with a West Coast passing attack. They will use a plethora of formations and pre-snap motion in an attempt to confuse the opposing defense. This is very much a run-first offense, and the Wolverines are running the ball 62% of the time this season.
Their scheme has worked extremely well thus far. Michigan is averaging 47 points per game, the most in the conference. Their strength is their running game, and they are averaging 249 rushing yards per game, the third-most in the conference. They have also been excellent on third downs (48% conversion rate) and in the red zone (91% success rate), ranking third in the conference in both of those situations. They have only turned the ball over 6 times, which is fourth-best in the country, and their offensive line has only allowed 11 sacks so far this season, the third-fewest in the conference.
Players to Watch
Quarterback: Wilton Speight (Junior)
The Wolverines featured a four-way competition for the starting quarterback job before the season began, and Speight emerged victorious. While he won’t blow you away with his abilities, he does exactly what Harbaugh and Drevno need him to do in their offense. With such a successful running game, they don’t ask Speight to do a whole lot. However, when he gets a chance to take a deep shot off of play-action, he typically hits his mark. He has completed 63% of his passes so far this season, and has thrown 13 touchdowns and just 3 interceptions. He isn’t much of a threat to run, but moves well in the pocket to avoid sacks.
Four Running Backs and a Fullback
The Wolverines feature one of the deepest and most talented backfields in the country. Three of their running backs have rushed for over 400 yards so far this season, and three have also scored 5 or more touchdowns. De’Veon Smith leads the team in rushing with 450 yards and has scored 5 touchdowns. Chris Evans is averaging a whopping 8 yards per carry, which leads the team, and has run for 424 yards and 3 touchdowns. Karan Higdon has run for 403 yards and 6 touchdowns, and is averaging 7.6 yards per carry. Ty Isaac has run for 348 yards and 4 touchdowns, averaging 5.27 yards per carry. Leading the team with 8 rushing touchdowns is Michigan’s fullback, Khalid Hill. That’s what you call a scary backfield, folks.
Pass Catchers: WR Amara Darboh (Redshirt Senior) and TE Jake Butt (Senior)
When the Wolverines throw the ball, which they’re doing just 38% of the time, Darboh and Butt are Speight’s favorite targets. Darboh has racked up an impressive 664 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns so far this season, and is averaging 17.47 yards per catch. When Speight goes deep, Darboh is typically the target. Butt is the Wolverines’ most reliable target, and one of the most athletic tight ends in the country. He has 345 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns on the year, and has scored 4 touchdowns.
Mr. Do-It-All: ATH Jabrill Peppers (Junior)
While Michigan has an extremely talented offensive unit, the player who gets the most attention (and deservedly so) isn’t even listed as an offensive player. Peppers is one of the nation’s most dynamic athletes, and he will see snaps on offense, defense, and special teams. I’ll touch on defense and special teams later, but for now let’s focus on what he does offensively. When Peppers is in the game on offense, he is usually taking snaps as the Wildcat quarterback. Drevno will typically use some sort of misdirection or option in order to get him on the edge, and most of his touches come in the red zone. So far this season, he has carried the ball 15 times for 131 yards and 3 touchdowns.
As I mentioned earlier, Harbaugh hired Brown as Michigan’s defensive coordinator after Durkin took the head coaching job at Maryland. He has 33 years of experience as a defensive coordinator or head coach at the collegiate level, and his defensive scheme is based on a 4-3 under front, with a few variations off of that. It is a system very similar to the one that Durkin ran with the Wolverines last season.
What to Watch For
He’s a linebacker. He’s a cornerback. He’s a safety. And that’s just on the defensive side of the ball. Brown will move Peppers all over his defensive formations in order to keep the opposing offense on its toes. Occasionally, he will be lined up as an outside linebacker. At other times, he’ll serve as the team’s nickel cornerback. And he’ll also play some safety. But no matter what position he’s playing, he’s the best player on the field. Peppers is second on the team with 48 tackles, and is second on the team with 3.5 sacks. He leads the team with 12 tackles for a loss.
The primary reason why Michigan’s defense is ranked as the best unit in the country is because of their stellar pass defense. So far this season, Brown’s unit has allowed fewer passing yards per game than any other team in the country. The Wolverines’ defensive backfield is led by senior cornerback Channing Stribling, who has already intercepted 3 passes on the year. As a team, Michigan has recorded 8 interceptions so far this season.
Michigan’s defense is elite no matter where they are on the field, but they are the best unit in the country on third downs and in the red zone. So far this season, Brown’s unit is only allowing a 16% third down conversion rate and a 58% red zone success rate by opposing offenses. One of the reasons for this success is the team’s excellent pass-rush, which is the best in the conference with 27 sacks.
This game begins one of the toughest three-game stretches imaginable for the Terrapins, who will also face Ohio State and Nebraska in the coming weeks. Unfortunately for them, they were unable to secure bowl eligibility last week against Indiana. They will finish the season at home against Rutgers, which ought to give them plenty of hope for a postseason berth if they are unable to pull off a near-miracle upset over the course of the next few weeks. These games will test the resiliency and the resolve of this team, and Durkin will surely be watching closely to see which of his players keep fighting after getting punched in the mouth repeatedly.
Offensively, Maryland will be facing the best defensive unit in the country. In order to have any sort of success, they will have to be able to run the football. The Terrapins boast the second-best rushing attack in the conference, which matches up fairly evenly with Michigan’s excellent run defense. Expect Brown’s defense to load the box in an attempt to take away the run, meaning that Maryland offensive coordinator Walt Bell may need to get creative early in the game in order to soften up the Wolverines’ front seven.
Defensively, Maryland’s run defense will be tested to the fullest extent. It’s a unit that has been obliterated by nearly every backfield it has faced, and last week against Indiana was no exception. The Hoosiers had exceptional success with their Wildcat package, which likely means that defensive coordinator Andy Buh’s unit will see a heavy dose of Peppers this weekend. Unsurprisingly, the Terrapins’ run defense has ranked as one of the worst in the country. But if you’re looking for reasons to feel more positive, here they are: Maryland’s pass-rush is the third-best in the conference, and they have one of the best red zone defenses in the country. This season’s unit is very much of the “bend-don’t-break” variety. If Maryland is going to threaten the Wolverines this weekend, they’ll have to be able to bend more often than they break.
Zack’s Keys to the Game
- Be Aggressive – The Terps will be playing with house money in this game. No one expects them to win, or come remotely close to winning. Be aggressive, take risks, and have fun. Maybe some good things will happen.
- Run the Ball – If Maryland can’t get their running game going, this game could get ugly in a hurry. Running the ball successfully allows them to use their tempo and sustain drives.
- Don’t Break – The best shot that Maryland’s defense has at having a successful game is stepping up on third downs and in the red zone. You may not be able to stop the Wolverines from driving down the field most of the afternoon, but if you can make a few key stops where it counts, that should be viewed as a victory.
- Just Compete – This is one of those games that can really help to build a program. You may not win, but if you can keep it close and remain competitive into the fourth quarter, it gives you confidence for the years to come. It’s a good barometer game to see how far your program really has to go.
Zack is a financial analyst for a defense contractor in Washington, DC. The Owings Mills native focuses most of his efforts on Maryland Football recruiting and individual coach and player pieces; but also covers Terps Basketball. He has established relationships with Big Ten beat reporters across the conference, which he utilizes in his game previews. Now a Sr. Terps Analyst for BSL, Zack can be reached at: [email protected]