Behind Enemy Lines: Michigan

After a tight win in their final non-conference game of the season, the Terps head up north to Ann Arbor to take on the Michigan Wolverines to open up Big Ten play. The Terps as well as the Wolverines both head into the game 3-0 and looking to start conference play off with a bang. We talked with Isaiah Hole of Wolverines Wire who is close with the Michigan team to learn more about the Terps upcoming opponent and who Terps fans should look out for.

John Gugs: With Michigan not having such a tough out of conference schedule, do you expect to see anything different from the team now that conference play will be starting, or do you expect more of the same schemes and styles of play from the team?

Isaiah Hole: It’s hard to say. To some degree, it will depend on if Michigan feels like it will need to get into its back of tricks, but most likely, it’ll rely mostly on its base stuff, or at least what we’ve seen thus far. That’s not to say that we’ll see boring, vanilla scheme-type things, because we didn’t even see that in the first three weeks. But generally, Michigan only starts getting explicitly creative in rivalry games or games like last year’s Big Ten Championship game. For the most part, I anticipate we’ll see similar things on offense with some wrinkles, while the defense does some different things (which is how it’s built) to confuse Taulia Tagovailoa and force him into mistakes.

JG: Would you say the running game or the passing game is what teams should focus on more when playing Michigan and why?

IH: Both. Last year, Michigan was predicated mostly on running the ball and passing the ball was a complement. The Wolverines are still highly committed to running the ball and will utilize many things at their disposal to make that work. From zone to counter, jet sweeps and everything in-between, Michigan will focus heavily on running the ball. But this year, especially with J.J. McCarthy at quarterback, as well as having such a deep, deep bench in the wide receiver room, you’re also going to see a lot of passing. McCarthy might be the most talented quarterback Michigan has had in the modern era, if not ever, and this is probably the deepest receiver group Michigan has ever had. Last year, the Wolverines would run on teams that knew they were going to run, and dare them to stop it. They’ll still do that a bit this year, but I don’t expect that it would work given the quarterback and receivers. If I were another team, I’d probably try to stop the run and see if it puts Michigan in a more desperate situation. McCarthy has played a bit, coming in as a reserve last year and only having two starts (and two-half games) thus far, so we don’t really know what he looks like if the offense isn’t working, just yet. But Michigan has all of the weapons to survive, if not thrive, if one element of its game isn’t working. And all of that isn’t even getting into Michigan in the play action or McCarthy keeping the ball.

JG: Other than JJ and Corum, what two players on the offense should Terps fans watch out for on Saturday?

IH: It might be a little obvious to mention Donovan Edwards, but I’ll mention him here. If you’re a Maryland fan, assuredly you remember that name, as the then-freshman running back caught 10 passes for 170 yards against the Terps last year in what was generally seen as his coming out party. He’s been injured the past game and a half, but he’s got the power of a running back with the speed and hands of a receiver. He went deep against Hawaii and reeled in a long pass that is reminiscent of any top of the line wideout you’d see in the sport. And Michigan likes to use him as a decoy, to boot. The following week last year, just Edwards’ presence on the field spurned A.J. Henning for a touchdown on the opening drive against Ohio State. I have two others: Ronnie Bell and Roman Wilson. I’ve been saying for years that Bell is a Chris Olave clone, and if he didn’t tear his ACL in the season opener last year, I think he would have matched Olave’s production. He was pretty close in previous years in yardage, just not touchdowns, but they play a similar game and have relative frames. Roman Wilson is probably the fastest player on the team and has showcased his ability in the early going. They’ll get it to him on screens or underneath passes and let him work in space, but he’s also a general downfield threat. This is his third year, and he was hampered a bit last year with an injury suffered in Week 4 and wasn’t quite the same until perhaps the Big Ten Championship game, despite still being involved. And then there’s the field: Cornelius Johnson is actually Michigan’s No. 1 receiver, Andrel Anthony has been waiting to break out after his huge performance against Michigan State last year, the aforementioned A.J. Henning is talked about as a Deebo Samuel-type talent, and he’s been a force on special teams, and there are three talented freshmen who are just starting to get involved in Darrius Clemons, Amorion Walker, and Tyler Morris. Also, the tight ends are generally big factors in the offense. Look for Luke Schoonmaker to build on his repertoire in the pass game aside from just being a solid blocker.

JG: If you were an opposing team how would you attack the Michigan defense and why?

IH: I’m not really sure, because nothing has worked in the early going. The only thing that I’ve seen have moderate success in the short-term has been misdirection, or making plays at the QB position when the play breaks down. Get the entire Michigan defense going one way and hit on the flat in the opposite direction. The pass defense hasn’t really been tested yet, so Maryland might not need any special tricks, as this unit is mostly new this year — though DJ Turner had a big game against the Terrapins last year, and Gemon Green has been around the block a bit. Overall, this defense hasn’t been close to tested. The starters have only let one team, Connecticut, across the 50-yard line, and the drive still ended badly for the Huskies. The starters haven’t given up a point yet, either. That will likely change on Saturday, but it’s unclear what will actually work against this Michigan defense.

JG: What players on defense do you expect to have the biggest impact on Saturday?

IH: Mazi Smith and Kris Jenkins have been a force in the middle of the defensive line, and have been stout in the run game. Jenkins has been adept at breaking up plays and getting into the backfield thus far. Mike Morris and Jaylen Harrell have been fantastic at creating pressure thus far, though the sack numbers outside of Week 1 haven’t been good — Michigan’s only managed one sack the past two weeks. Eyabi Okie, née Anoma, who played at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore, is just getting going with this team, too, and the former five-star got a sack on his first snap with the Wolverines. Junior Colson has been an absolute force at linebacker thus far, and has been something of a mistake eraser. Mike Sainristil may have been a wide receiver last year (he had an incredible one-handed catch for a touchdown at Maryland in 2021) but he’s been maybe Michigan’s best defensive player thus far as the nickel back, emulating Dax Hill’s style of play and production in the early going. The other player I’d mention is Makari Paige, the safety who’s in his third year and is starting to finally get big minutes. He’s starting to look like the four-star prospect he was billed as coming out of West Bloomfield High School.

JG: How do you predict the game to go?

IH: Honestly, I have no idea. Though Michigan hasn’t been tested yet this year, it’s not like these guys haven’t played in big games. Pretty much every major contributor has been involved in the bigger games last year, J.J. McCarthy and  the new-look defense included. So while it may have been nine-plus months since they’ve been in the spotlight against a foe with a pulse, these guys know what it’s like to play dominant football. I think Maryland will be able to do some things in the pass game, and will put a scare into the Michigan defense for at least a half. I think it will look better for the Terps than it has in recent years against the Wolverines on that side of the ball, but I’m not confident that Maryland’s defense will be able to stop Michigan’s offense. It will obviously be more difficult than the past three weeks, but remember, Michigan called off the dogs by halftime in each of the first three games, so even the 50-plus points scored at the start of the season has been misleading. Michigan could have scored 100 on Hawaii or UConn if it wanted to. That doesn’t translate to Maryland, but how it does is I’m concerned about the conditioning, since these players have only played in half-games to this point. I think it will be a boat race for both offenses for a half, but things slow down in the second. I expect Michigan to have a solid lead in the fourth quarter, but Maryland to be able to take advantage of Wolverines not having as many snaps at this point in the season, which will allow for some late success for the Terps. Still, I anticipate Michigan will win by two or three scores once the clock hits zero, in large part because I don’t believe that Maryland’s defense has the horses to hang with the Michigan offense.

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