The Maryland football team will be a big underdog this week when it plays No. 3 Michigan in Ann Arbor. To learn more about the Wolverines before Saturday's 3:30 p.m. kickoff, we asked five questions to Jake Lourim, sports editor of the Michigan Daily and the Baltimore Sun's summer sports intern in 2016.
1. Is there an empathy bone in Jim Harbaugh's body that might let him take the foot off the gas if the four-touchdown favorite Wolverines go up big early, or will this be like one of his now-famous one-on-one basketball games with DJ Durkin where they were out for blood?
Harbaugh has been known to go for unnecessary 2-point conversions to send a message, but I don't think he'll do anything to disrespect Maryland this weekend. In the past, those statements have come in response to some sort of slight from the opposing team. Last month, for example, he went for two in the first half of a 78-0 rout against Rutgers, but there may have been some bad blood between those teams.
With Durkin, it's the opposite. Harbaugh has talked all week about how much respect he has for Durkin, who was a great coach for him at Stanford and at Michigan last year. The one-on-one basketball games at Stanford got competitive, but I think Harbaugh acts that way all the time. He doesn't run up the score maliciously — even in the 78-0 game, the starters were out by halftime.
2. A lot of Maryland fans are familiar with Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown from his years with Ralph Friedgen in College Park. Is the Wolverines defense playing much differently than it did under Durkin, and why has it been just as successful?
The defense doesn't look much different — it's just a little better, which is impressive considering how strong Durkin's unit was last year. The line is nearly unstoppable. The linebackers have successfully replaced all three starters from last year. The secondary has locked down pretty much every opposing passing attack. And they feed off each other — the defensive backs cover well, so the front seven can bring more pressure, so the coverage is easier, and so on. The carryover from Durkin's defense is the energy. Durkin brought the enthusiasm last year, and the Wolverines followed him. Many of those players are back with another year of experience.
As for Brown, the biggest difference is that Michigan blitzes more, something Maryland fans may remember from his time in College Park. The longtime defensive coordinator is known as "Dr. Blitz," and he has a different look ready for almost every play. He's also steadfast in sticking to that game plan — even when things aren't necessarily clicking, Brown won't go away from what he does best.
The other major difference this year is that the Wolverines are much healthier. Last year, they lost one defensive lineman to a season-ending injury before the opener, another in Week 5 against Maryland and a third in Week 9 against Rutgers. By this time last year, they were hobbling a bit. This season, they have everyone back and healthy except Willie Henry (now with the Ravens), and they've added the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2016, Rashan Gary.
3. Considering the latest heroics of do-everything star Jabrill Peppers – turning a 2- point conversion attempt fumble into a 97-yard touchdown return to seal last week's 32-23 win over arch rival Michigan State in East Lansing, do you think he has a legitimate shot of becoming the first defensive player since Charles Woodson in 1997 to win the Heisman?
Yes, I do. He's not the favorite right now — that title would probably go to Louisville's Lamar Jackson — but if the season ended today, I think he'd at least be headed to New York for the ceremony. He can just impact the game in so many ways — at linebacker, in the secondary, in the return game, as a running back and as a Wildcat quarterback. He's a big-play threat any time he touches the ball at any of those positions.
The challenge for him, like you mentioned, will be the numbers and the bias toward offensive players for the award. If Jackson keeps playing like he has been, or if another player like J.T. Barrett or Deshaun Watson surges to the top with a breakout November, Peppers might have some trouble. But as of right now, he's very much in the thick of things with 257 punt-return yards, 168 kick-return yards, 131 rushing yards, 12.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and four touchdowns.
I think Harbaugh will keep pushing for him, too. The coach first made a case for Peppers' Heisman candidacy Oct. 8 at Rutgers, and he has only used Peppers in more ways since then. Michigan continues to give him the ball around the goal line, perhaps in an attempt to get him in the end zone a few more times before the end of the season.
4. How surprising has the play of junior quarterback Wilton Speight been so far this season, given how little he played last season? Also, has anybody in Ann Arbor questioned whether Speight is related to Harbaugh because doesn't he look like a member of the coach's family?
First off, yes, Speight certainly does look like a Harbaugh. The two resemble each other in more ways than just their faces, too — perhaps that's why Harbaugh hand-picked Speight to quarterback his team. Speight is as confident as any player on Michigan right now, and I think that's been important in him taking over the offense.
I think people have been surprised a bit by Speight. He was an uncertainty entering the season, but I think of the three quarterbacks competing for the starting job (him, John O'Korn and Shane Morris), he won out by being the most consistent. He has played that way so far, doing what he has had to do to keep Michigan undefeated.
5. Considering the rest of Michigan's schedule, do you expect the Wolverines to stay unbeaten going into Ohio State the last game of the season? Considering how the Buckeyes have dominated the series, winning the last four and 11 of the last 12, do you think it's just going to be another miserable visit to "The Horseshoe" for Michigan?
Going into the season, I didn't expect Michigan to be undefeated going into Columbus (I thought they would lose at Michigan State, Iowa or maybe even both), but now it seems likely. They have been so dominant and so focused that it seems unlikely that they let up for a full game.
November is a wild month, though. I could definitely see Michigan losing in a road night game at Iowa next weekend. The Hawkeyes have struggled a fair amount this season, but they still have C.J. Beathard, still have Desmond King and will play as hard as they have all season, as many teams have against Michigan.
But assuming the Wolverines are 11-0 heading to Ohio State, that would be quite the scene. I don't expect Michigan to be dominated as much as it has been in the series in the last decade — or to lose by four touchdowns like the Wolverines did last year — but as of now, I'll give the edge to Ohio State, yes. The Buckeyes are still really talented and will be playing at home, and they're not an ideal matchup for Michigan, with a running quarterback in Barrett. It'll be fun to watch, though.