The non-conference schedule has been a blessing and a curse for the Michigan Wolverines. On one hand, why risk a loss when the team can play a glorified preseason to get their legs underneath them and sort out any positional competitions? On the other hand, is the easy schedule leaving the team vulnerable for the first Big Ten game of the season?
Over the last two seasons, Michigan has been sluggish against its first conference opponent of the season. First against Rutgers in 2021, and again last season against Maryland.
2021 Rutgers (W, 20-13)
This was Michigan’s worst offensive performance of the season (275 total yards) and required two fourth-quarter stops to cling to a seven-point victory. Behind quarterback Cade McNamara, the Wolverines only completed one pass in the second half and gained two first downs.
One of the most shocking numbers was the fact Michigan was out-rushed 196-112 and its yards per carry (2.96) was worse against the Scarlet Knights than Georgia in the College Football Playoff.
Even on multiple viewings, this game is hard to understand. Why couldn’t Michigan establish the run or complete a pass against an eventual 5-7 team with only two conference wins?
2022 Maryland (W, 34-27)
After tearing his patella tendon against Hawaii, running back Donovan Edwards missed the Big Ten opener against Maryland. This injury forced Blake Corum to shoulder the entire rushing responsibility against the Terrapins.
Corum accounted for every single yard of Michigan’s rushing attack on his way to the seventh-best outing by a Michigan rusher in program history — 243 yards — and the Wolverines needed every one of those yards to seal the victory.
Michigan also needed Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa to chip in when he impatiently forced a pass into double coverage that was tipped and intercepted for his second of the day. The Wolverines seized a 34-19 lead following this pick and despite Maryland adding a late touchdown for style points, it didn’t matter.
Unlike Rutgers the previous year, Maryland was a shockingly talented team. The Terrapins went on to also play Ohio State close and ultimately win eight games.
Michigan struggled against both teams for several reasons, but most of the connective tissue takes place along the offensive line. Rutgers and Maryland both featured deep, veteran offensive lines that held up long enough to give the offense a chance.
Furthermore, both teams featured key playmakers even if the masses weren’t familiar yet. The Kansas City Chiefs starting running back, Isiah Pacheco, and emerging Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Bo Melton were both members of the 2021 Scarlet Knights.
Maryland ultimately had five players from the 2022 team selected in the NFL Draft and had a handful of others sign after the fact.
Is Rutgers a threat again this season? The national consensus is Rutgers will be one of the bottom three teams in the Big Ten, but that won’t deter head coach Greg Schiano and his last hope quarterback Gavin Wimsatt from playing spoiler. This team has more offensive line experience than last season and a defense that is physical at the point of attack.
If the recent conference openers have taught us anything, don’t be surprised if this game is closer than it should be at halftime.