COLLEGE PARK — All week long, second-year coach DJ Durkin and his players on the Maryland football team talked about not repeating the misery of last year’s demolition at Michigan.
All week long, the Terps promised to be more engaged than they were during last week’s disheartening loss at Rutgers.
Maryland didn’t get blown out Saturday as badly as it did last season in Ann Arbor, even though it appeared that might happen again after falling behind at halftime 28-0.
But the final score — 35-10 in favor of the Wolverines — was a combination of Maryland’s resolve and the respect Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh for his former defensive coordinator.
“I think we’re a team still trying to find ourselves,” Durkin said after his team’s fifth loss in its past six games. “No disrepect to him [redshirt sophomore quarterback Ryan Brand], we’re starting a fifth-string quarterback today playing one of the best teams in the country. There was a little tentativeness, ‘Are we really going to do this, is this actually going to work, is it going to happen?’
We finally gained some of that and we finally played. You can’t do it that way, you can’t let that affect your whole game and it did. We’re a team learning, I love our team, I love where we’re at. There’s a lot of talent and a lot of guys that will be part of this program moving forward. I think we can win a lot of games with them.”
One thing can be said about the first half: it wasn’t just on Durkin's much-maligned defense. It was on every unit, as well as on Durkin and his staff, especially with the way the Terps played in the second quarter.
“Obviously, in the first half, it was a game of field position. We put ourselves in bad spots,” Durkin said. “We had a couple of opportunities where things could go our way … we had momentum plays that could have swung things the other way.
“We got stopped on a fake punt. We had a blown assignment on a blocked punt. I thought our defense played well. For the game, we outgained them [340-305]. I can’t say enough about how our offense keeps competing and playing.”
The offense, with Brand making his first start and becoming the fourth quarterback to start for the Terps this season, was filled with trickery, but got very little until the second half.
The defense, coming off an embarrassing performance in Piscataway, N.J., had a couple of good series in the first quarter before the proverbial dam opened in the second quarter before the Terps plugged some of those perforations after halftime.
And special teams, which had been pretty solid since Durkin arrived, experienced Australian punter Wade Lees getting blocked for the first time, leading to an easy touchdown by Michigan two plays later. Earlier in the game, a faked punt came up short and would have been brought back anyway by an illegal shift by the Terps.
“Those probably are big plays,” said Durkin. “We have played well [on special teams]. It let the game get away from us there.”
It helped the Wolverines build a 28-0 halftime lead, which was a slight improvement for the Terps on the 35-0 deficit they faced going into the second half of last year’s 59-3 defeat at “The Big House.”
Asked if he felt the Terps had to take chances with some trick plays — including a reverse flea-flicker pass from DJ Moore than Brand dropped — Durkin said, “To me you look at the second half and you saw us finally take a deep breath, relax and play football. I think we outplayed them in the second half pretty clearly.
“You can’t take moral victories out of a game, they won the game. Credit to them. But I will say, we don’t have to do anything special. All we have to do is execute and play the way we’re capable. I think that would be good enough most weekends.”
Brand, who completed eight of 12 passes for 68 yards against Rutgers after sophomore Max Bortenschlager was injured, finished 16 of 35 for 136 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions against Michigan.
“There’s plenty of stuff to clean up and do better. I like his fight, the way he bounced back in the second half. I think he was a little tentative in the first half, which is to be expected, for a first game ever starting at this level,” Durkin said.
“He made some good throws, made good decisions, made some good runs, got to protect the ball even all the way to the last series of the game. You can’t turn it over against a good team. You’re not going to win.”
Despite constant pressure by a team that leads the nation in defense and the Big Ten in sacks, Brand was sacked just once. Most remarkable was that he finished the game without getting hurt.
Asked if changed his approach after the Terps fell behind by four touchdowns, Brand said, “Really, I just saw it as ‘take it a play at a time, a drive at a time.’ You try not to think about the scoreboard too much because then you start to force things and you make bad decisions.”
Durkin believes the Terps are making progress.
“Look, how we played in the second half, we came in the locker room and there was no yelling at halftime,” Durkin said. “It was, ‘OK, are you guys ready, just go out and play, as opposed to shooting ourselves in the foot?” Durkin said. “If we just play our game, we’re right where we want to be. Could have easily laid down, said we have no chance. We didn’t do that.”
Best play: After the early flea-flicker pass from Harrison that was dropped by a wide-open Brand, the Terps pulled off what might have been their most creative play of Walt Bell’s stint as offensive coordinator. A 36-yard run by Harrison had given the Terps, trailing by four touchdowns, a first down at the Michigan 35. On second-and-10, Brand handed off to junior running back Ty Johnson, who flipped the ball to Moore, who then hit Brand for a 21-yard pass.
Worst play: Trailing 14-0 early in the second quarter, facing a fourth-and-7 from the Maryland 30, Durkin decided to try a fake punt. Jake Funk’s shovel pass to senior wide receiver Jacquille Veii went for only three yards. On Michigan’s first play from scrimmage after the fake, sophomore quarterback Brandon Peters found junior tight end Zach Gentry for a 33-yard touchdown and a 21-0 lead.
“The fake punt, I feel good about it,” Durkin said. “We repped it, executed it, for whatever reason we were aligned wrong. It was screwed up from the beginning. That gave them good field position.”
What it means: Not much in the big picture, since the down-to-the-wire loss at Rutgers all but doomed Maryland’s chances of a second straight bowl appearance under Durkin. But at some point, the Terps are going to have to play one of the Big Ten’s elite close, too.
In games against ranked teams — the Wolverines were No. 21 in the Associated Press poll coming in, but unranked in the College Football Playoff rankings — Maryland has lost by an average of 39 points and has been outscored 191-13 in the first half of those six games.