Any chance of No. 15 Michigan overlooking Maryland on Saturday in Ann Arbor probably ended last week in the suburbs of Chicago.
It ended when the Wolverines, coming off a 56-10 stomping of Nebraska, trailed Northwestern 17-0 early in the second quarter.
Already saddled with a season-opening loss at Notre Dame, Michigan knew a defeat in Evanston would be devastating to its season.
The Wolverines won, 20-17, with running back Karan Higdon scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 4:06 remaining to cap off a 30-carry, 115-yard, two-touchdown performance.
Michigan won because its quarterback, Mississippi transfer Shea Patterson, finally showed the kind of leadership the Wolverines have often lacked from that position during Jim Harbaugh’s four-year tenure.
The defense, seemingly inspired by senior end Chase Winovich, held Northwestern scoreless for the last 43 minutes and gave Harbaugh hope that it could become the dominant unit most had predicted.
“I thought the entire team they were willing to do what it took to win, and had the talent to do it and got it done,” Harbaugh said at his weekly news conference Monday.
Michigan (4-1, 2-0) needs to keep winning to quiet Harbaugh’s critics — most notably ESPN’s Paul Finebaum — after a disappointing 8-5 record a year ago.
Many believe the Wolverines should have an easy time this Saturday on homecoming against Maryland (3-1, 1-0), which is well-rested coming off a bye week after beating Minnesota easily, 42-13, in its Big Ten opener.
Harbaugh, whose team is favored by 17 ½ points, does not.
Speaking of Maryland’s speed and physicality on defense, as well as its ability to score, Harbaugh said at his news conference that it’s not unusual to have some trepidation early in the week.
Even an opponent that the Wolverines have dominated in the three years (122-13, including 59-3 the last time the Terps played at “The Big House” in 2016) since Harbaugh has been at Michigan.
“Your confidence, it’s not real high on a Monday as you look at your opponent and you watch what they do well,” Harbaugh said. “That’s why you watch the tape and put your game plan in.
“You look at them a little bit more on Tuesday and a little bit more on Wednesday and hopefully by Thursday and Friday, we think we have a chance.”
The Wolverines are not that hard to figure out.
Just as it did against Northwestern, Michigan will likely try to wear down Maryland’s defense with Higdon and its offensive line to help open things up for Patterson.
Higdon’s carries were the most by a Michigan running back under Harbaugh, who said that he has a “high level of trust with Karan in every phase, including ball security, as much as the offense does.”
Since being held to 72 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries in the 24-17 loss to the Fighting Irish, the 6-foot, 201-pound senior has gained 407 yards and four touchdowns on 55 carries in the three-game winning streak.
“He’s really got the ability to run, all the assortment of runs,” Harbaugh said of Higdon. “He’s not in a category where he can only run outside runs or only run inside runs. He can do both, and he can also pass protect.”
Still, the difference in the Northwestern game might have been Patterson, who completed 15 of 24 passes for 196 yards while also rushing for 31 yards on seven carries.
After two seasons in Oxford, Miss., Patterson was able to gain immediate eligibility after receiving a waiver from the NCAA because the Rebels were found guilty of multiple rules infractions.
After being named the starter Aug. 20, Patterson called it a “once in a lifetime opportunity” for a player who had grown up in nearby Toledo, Ohio.
Patterson has played well in his first five games, completing 76 of 111 passes for 905 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions.
But a coach who knows something about quarterback-led comebacks said that Patterson’s performance at Northwestern raised the level of respect he is getting from his teammates, and possibly from Harbaugh as well.
“It’s a great feeling as a quarterback to have a comeback win,” Harbaugh said. “His energy was infectious on the sideline and in the game. As the game was tight and we needed a spark, he gave it.
“It got closer, and he gave more energy and took plays into his own hands at times. That intangible, he was chasing the victory and rallying his teammates. Not everybody has that. He showed it.”
Perhaps the X-factor for the Wolverines is Winovich, who, after earning All-Big Ten honors as a junior, decided to return to improve his NFL draft stock.
His performance against Northwestern, which included eight solo tackles and a sack, certainly didn’t hurt the 6-3, 255-pound senior linebacker’s pro stock. He was named the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Week.
Matt Canada, who still thinks himself more as Maryland’s offensive coordinator than its interim head coach, took notice in watching tape of Winovich and the defense early in the week.
“Chase, he plays so hard,” Canada said at his weekly news conference Tuesday in College Park. “And their whole defense does. …[Devin] Bush is another guy that plays real hard. A traditional Michigan linebacker that runs to the football. They run to the football, they do a great job getting their hands up and knock a lot of balls down.
“There‘s a reason they’re one of the top defenses in the country. They have great players and they play really hard and they have, in my opinion, one of the best coordinators around [in former Maryland defensive coordinator Don Brown], and they have a great scheme. It’s a pretty good combination for playing great defense.”