COLLEGE PARK, Md. — They kept making the play to get the chance to keep making plays, though even No. 2 Michigan would tell you it helped that Maryland couldn’t make the play it needed to make.
The Terrapins certainly had their chances until the end against the Wolverines. On another day, this might have been an upset. Instead, Michigan showed something as it won the football program's 1,000th game and set up another showdown with Ohio State for the Big Ten East title.
The Wolverines won by a touchdown, 31-24, and somehow the game was much harder than that. Name your reason, or your excuse (depending on your point of view). Still, here are a few inarguable truths:
Quarterback J.J. McCarthy missed wideout Roman Wilson. Not only do the two have an understanding of where the other will be — especially when McCarthy is on the move — but Wilson knows how to get open.
The Wolverines missed that.
They were also without starting left tackle LaDarius Henderson. Michigan has solid depth on the offensive line, but Henderson had settled into the spot for a reason.
And then there was head coach Jim Harbaugh’s absence. Now, you might say: Hey, they played just fine last week at Penn State, and this is true, they played well enough to win.
But let’s not act like a good coach doesn’t make a difference during the game. How much? That’s hard to say.
Perhaps this was going to be a tough game whether Harbaugh stood on the sideline or not. The Terrapins played the Wolverines close last season at Michigan Stadium. They have the best offense in the Big Ten outside of Ann Arbor and Columbus.
They also have a clever coach, who changed speeds and direction against Michigan all afternoon. In fact, his guys couldn’t always take advantage.
At least three times, Maryland QB Taulia Tagovailoa had receivers running free behind the defense and couldn’t quite connect. There were other plays to be had that couldn’t quite be had. Mike Locksley also called a patient game, never giving up on the run, even when it didn’t much go anywhere.
Beyond the absences and the strategy, though, beyond the missed opportunities — the Wolvernes had a few of their its own — was this:
Michigan hadn’t seen a quarterback as gifted at Tagovailoa all season. Not even close, if we’re being real.
And now come the Buckeyes?
Ohio State will bring more overall talent and skill and a much better defense than Maryland’s. And they’ll have the best player on the field: one of the best — if not the best — player in college football in Marvin Harrison Jr.
But Kyle McCord isn’t Tagovailoa, at least not yet, and while Michigan will have a harder time scoring against Ohio State, at least in theory, the Buckeyes won’t present the same issues with the passing game.
This is one way to look at Saturday's relatively sloppy play and still feel reasonably optimistic about the regular-season finale in Ann Arbor. As mediocre as the Big Ten has been this year, it’s still hard to run every team off the field.
Besides, as mentioned earlier, the Terrapins lost by a touchdown at Michigan Stadium last fall and then beat Ohio State by 15. Not that we’re espousing the whole transitive properties thing.
(Well, maybe a little.)
In any case, the Wolverines held on. They made the play to make the plays. Whether it was pinning Maryland on its 1-yard-line late in the fourth quarter and then forcing an intentional grounding in the end zone — an automatic safety — or hounding Tagovailoa with the game on the line.
Even on offense, when the Wolverines needed a play, they made it for the most part — most notably tight end Colston Loveland, who caught fourth-down conversions twice, with each leading to a touchdown.
And then, on one last fourth-down attempt, one last push behind the offensive line, one last run by Blake Corum, the Wolverines managed a yard. The single yard they needed.
Officials had to measure to confirm it. Then had to review the decision to make sure they’d gotten the right spot and the right measurement.
They did, and that was the game. Maryland had no timeouts. The"Beat Ohio" chants began.
Was the call closer than it should’ve been?
Yes, it was. So was the game, but then again, the latter is a matter of expectation, which leads us back to Harbaugh, as it always does with this program, especially the last few weeks.
It’s likely that his absence got to his team a little, considering it was the second in a row, and that it looked like he might get his suspension reduced by a game before the university dropped its fight — tough news from the perspective of the players.
No one feels his absence more than McCarthy. He said as much when Harbaugh missed the first three games of the season under a different suspension.
“Different vibe,” McCarthy called it.
Harbaugh settles McCarthy’s quarterback soul, and whether a foot injury was bothering him, he didn’t look like himself. Harbaugh helps with that.
Then again, so does Wilson, and an effective running game, which was there last week at Penn State, but not as much Saturday.
McCarthy and the offense and, well, the whole team will need everyone and everything to beat the Buckeyes for a third straight time. Ohio State may not be its usual offensive force, but it’s still Ohio State.
Finally, The Game is here, and the Wolverines have a chance to make a much louder statement than they did in the game before The Game, even as they made the play before the play.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan beat Maryland, but Ohio State concerns now loom