ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan will welcome back former defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin when it hosts Maryland at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Michigan Stadium.
Durkin returns as the first-year coach of the Terrapins, and he may have a good idea of what makes Michigan’s defense tick. But will he and Maryland be able to break through the nation’s top FBS defense?
Coming off a tight 32-23 win last Saturday at Michigan State, expect No. 2 Michigan (8-0, 5-0 in the Big Ten) to be less than hospitable to Maryland (5-2, 2-3) and Durkin. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh labeled Durkin on Monday a “friend and an ally” — but that will change Saturday.
“I pull for them,” Harbaugh said of the Terrapins, “when they’re not playing for us.”
But, Harbaugh added, “He’s done a fabulous job. Always respected D.J. as a tremendous competitor, at the highest level. I’m smiling, thinking about his competitiveness, and also, always happy for a friend’s success. He’s doing a fabulous job, him and his team.”
Here’s what Michigan will need to focus on, in preparation for Maryland:
1. Stop Maryland’s ball movement early
Michigan wasn’t able to stop Michigan State in the early stages of the game. Spartans running back L.J. Scott had a hand in 11 of Michigan State’s 12 plays in its opening drive Saturday, which culminated with Scott’s 5-yard touchdown. Maryland will have a similar feel with running backs Lorenzo Harrison and Ty Johnson, who have combined for nearly 1,200 yards and nine touchdowns, and will have to pressure another key player in Maryland quarterback Perry Hills.
2. Emphasize the pass defense, especially against a revitalized Perry Hills
Maryland’s quarterback is a fifth-year senior who leads the Big Ten in passing efficiency (149.9), ahead of Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight (149.2), and has rebounded from a shoulder injury in September against Central Florida to become one of the Big Ten’s comeback players. In seven games, Hills is 93-for-140 passing for 1,070 yards and 10 touchdowns and has been intercepted three times. Michigan has the No. 1 pass defense in the country (120.1 yards per game) but was torched in the fourth quarter at Michigan State, giving up 150 of Michigan State’s 184 passing yards. Prior to Michigan State, Michigan had only given up more than 150 passing yards in a game three times this season.
3. Clamp down on the opposition through the final horn
This almost didn’t happen last weekend at Michigan State, as the Spartans cut Michigan’s lead to 30-23 with one second left — and could have gone for the onside kick, but quarterback Tyler O’Connor fumbled the snap on the two-point conversion attempt, rendering an onside kick moot.
Michigan State’s final drive showed Michigan’s vulnerabilities, particularly an inability to close out a game against a team that had something to prove and nothing to lose. Michigan will face a similar team Saturday in the Terps, who aim to become bowl eligible after missing a chance last Saturday in a 42-36 loss to Indiana.
4. Make the small details count
When Michigan’s players looked back at the win at Michigan State, they lamented the “little things” that built up to bigger mistakes and allowed the Spartans to get back into the game and erase a 20-point deficit in the fourth quarter. Michigan pinpointed where it can refine the small details: following through on a block or an assignment, minimizing penalties and maintaining intensity through the course of a game — and not just at certain times.
5. D.J. Durkin is no longer your coach, so don’t play like he’s still your coach
Last season, Durkin oversaw a Michigan unit that finished fourth in the nation in total defense in 2015 (254.3 yards). But instead of solely focusing on the defense, Durkin now runs an entire team. He has brought his energy and his intensity to the Terps as a head coach, and has revitalized the program. Maryland isn’t at the same competitive level as Michigan, but the Wolverines will prepare to play against team that will have an extra burst of intensity.