Ever since quarterback C.J. Brown led Maryland to a 23-16 comeback road win over Michigan in the next-to-last week of the regular season in 2014, the matchups between the Terps and Wolverines have been overwhelmingly one-sided.
While that game seemed briefly to solidify Randy Edsall’s tenure in College Park, it all but ended Brady Hoke’s career at in Ann Arbor. It led to Jim Harbaugh’s arrival and to Maryland getting crushed the past three years.
Harbaugh’s first win — a 28-0 victory over the Terps — also helped seal Edsall’s fate, leading to the hiring of Harbaugh’s former defensive coordinator, DJ Durkin. It’s college football’s ultimate what-goes-around-comes-around.
Matt Canada insists that he’s not going into “The Big House” on Saturday as the head coach of the Terps and simply as the interim with Durkin, on paid administrative leave since August, awaiting his own uncertain future.
Just the setting alone will put the 46-year-old offensive coordinator in a different kind of spotlight than he’s faced the first four games.
Here are five things to look at for with Canada and the Terps as they play the No. 15 Wolverines:
1. Whether Michigan’s defense locks down emerging star running back Anthony McFarland Jr.
On Maryland’s last trip to Ann Arbor, which ended with the Terps getting waxed, 59-3, rising sophomore star Ty Johnson was held to just 11 yards on nine carries and Maryland gained just 78 yards on 38 carries.
Last season, in a 35-10 rout at Maryland Stadium, the Terps picked up 180 yards, but most of the damage was done after the Wolverines built a 28-0 halftime lead. In both games, Lorenzo Harrison III led Maryland in rushing.
While Johnson had a better game last season, finishing with 67 yards on 12 carries, Harrison is out for the remainder of the 2018 season after injuring his knee in practice last week. The X-factor on Saturday could be McFarland.
Coming off two straight games with more than 100 yards, including 112 yards and two touchdowns on just six attempts against Minnesota two weeks ago, McFarland is likely the most dangerous running back the Wolverines have faced this year.
The combination of McFarland and Johnson might help Maryland’s offense get some traction.
The redshirt freshman quarterback showed remarkable poise in last season’s opener at Texas after starter Tyrrell Pigrome went down with a season-ending knee injury late in the third quarter. Hill made a huge 40-yard pass on third-and-19 to DJ Moore and rushed for a touchdown to help build the lead.
This week is much different. While Hill played well in his first big game this season and led the Terps to another win over the Longhorns, it came at FedEx Field in Landover before a crowd that was mixed and a third of the size of the one he will be surrounded by Saturday.
Hill showed some resilience after a poor performance against Temple with an efficient outing against the Golden Gophers in the Big Ten opener, but the Wolverines have clearly the best defense he has ever faced.
Though it might be a back-to-reality moment for Hill, it could also be a stage in which a star is born.
3. If Maryland’s defense, especially on third down, is for real
The Terps have been a pleasant surprise defensively so far this season. The only thing that kept Minnesota in the game two weeks ago were the number of penalties — particularly in pass coverage — that Maryland’s defense committed.
Michigan’s strength is running the ball with workhorse senior Karan Higdon getting the bulk of the carries. If the Terps can slow down Higdon and force junior quarterback Shea Patterson to beat them, Maryland might have a chance to keep things competitive longer than many expect.
The Terps still lead the Big Ten in third-down defense, allowing just 18 conversions on 62 attempts, and that could be the biggest single statistic relevant to Saturday’s outcome. Maryland needs that trend to continue to have a chance.
4. Which team’s injuries are more significant
Both the Terps and Wolverines came out of their most recent games a big banged up. That Maryland had an extra week to get healthy could be important, especially when it comes to starting safeties Darnell Savage Jr. and Antwaine Richardson, as well as offensive tackle Damian Prince and guard/center Johnny Jordan.
Though Michigan still has more quality depth, the shoulder injury to All-Big Ten and preseason All-America defensive end Rashan Gary could be troublesome for the Wolverines. Gary came out of last week’s 20-17 win over Northwestern and didn’t return. Higdon’s backup, junior Chris Evans, sat out the game with an injury.
Canada said earlier this week that he was “hopeful” that everyone who has missed either the Minnesota game or the past two games, aside from Harrison and fellow junior running back Jake Funk (broken hand), would be back.
Given the way the Terps played against Temple, when they were without three starting offensive linemen, as well as Harrison, they need to be as close to 100 percent as possible to have any shot at an upset.
5. If the Terps can hang for a half, is that progress?
Given the way Michigan has manhandled Maryland since Harbaugh took over, most Terps fans know that the 17 ½-point spread is as much about the skepticism surrounding the Wolverines as it is suddenly newfound respect for Canada’s team.
That said, consider the halftime scores the past two years, including 35-0 two years ago in Ann Arbor. Only in Harbaugh’s first season, when the Wolverines struggled offensively and led only 6-0, was the game close for a half.
The Terps have not been competitive with many of the perennial powers in the Big Ten since beating the Wolverines and Penn State in their first year away from the Atlantic Coast Conference. A competitive, down-to-the-wire game, even a defeat, might be as big a step as Maryland has taken this season.