ANN ARBOR, Mich. — As the pocket dissolved around Maryland football quarterback Kasim Hill late in the fourth quarter Saturday, the redshirt freshman took a step backward to avoid the pass rush while releasing his throw toward wide receiver Taivon Jacobs.
The ball never reached its target. Michigan defensive back Brandon Watson, playing underneath coverage, pulled in the pass and ran 46 yards in the opposite direction to ice a game that had, for all intents and purposes, been decided much earlier.
Upon reaching the end zone, Watson raised one finger into the sky, signaling to a crowd of 109,531 fans at the Big House something they didn’t need reminding of. No. 15 Michigan boasts the top-ranked defense in the country, and had it not been for two garbage time Terps touchdowns, the 42-21 scoreline would have appeared as lopsided as the game truly was.
“We didn’t come here to be close, we didn’t come here to try, we came here to win,” interim head coach Matt Canada said. “We didn’t win.”
Maryland’s rushing game has carried it to three wins this year. When the Terps don’t have the luxury of picking up large chunks of yardage on each carry, they become incredibly limited.
So when Michigan’s ball-hawking defense neutralized much of Maryland’s rushing attack, there wasn’t a clear way for the team to climb back into the contest. The Terps’ top two backs rushed for a combined 37 yards.
“The games we’ve played well, we haven’t had to throw the ball,” Canada said. “So we haven’t. Maybe we need to practice. That’s on me, too. It’s all on me.”
When running back Ty Johnson stiff-armed one final Michigan (5-1, 3-0 Big Ten) defender on his way into the end zone in the first quarter, Maryland (3-2, 1-1) found itself with a lead at the Big House, a prospect few people considered.
And two plays into the Wolverines’ next drive, safety Darnell Savage came down with a tipped ball and set up the Terps’ offense with a prime opportunity to extend that advantage. But Maryland’s offense struggled to produce much of anything, on that drive — a three-and out — or most of its others.
Maryland’s slim 7-3 edge slipped away as quarterback Shea Patterson picked apart a defense forced to remain on the field for an inordinate amount of time. After an hour-plus weather delay to begin the day, Michigan made the Terps’ pass coverage look spotty, their tackling lackluster and their pass rush nonexistent.
“[Patterson] works well working out of the pocket, throwing the ball,” defensive back Antoine Brooks said. “We tried to keep him in the pocket, but good quarterbacks make good plays.”
Late in the third quarter, Patterson stood in the pocket with ample time to find a receiver. The Ole Miss transfer dumped the ball off to running back Karan Higdon, who broke out of Brooks’ tackle and scampered deep into Maryland territory.
Linebacker Tre Watson, the Terps’ leading tackler at the time, laid out wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, who had blocked a Maryland defender in the back moments before.
When Watson was called for targeting and ejected from the game, the second Maryland player to be tossed Saturday, he was visibly frustrated leaving the field, after already committing an unnecessary penalty on it.
“I can’t comment on that,” Canada said. “I have an opinion, but I can’t comment on it.”
Maryland’s defense had been markedly improved compared to last year. Entering its second Big Ten contest, the Terps led the conference in third-down conversion rate and were fourth in rush defense.
But they had struggled at times against the pass this year, and it showed strongest against Michigan. Patterson completed 19 passes for a season-high 282 yards and three touchdowns. Hill, meanwhile, completed five passes for 62 yards.
In the first quarter, before Maryland’s defense seemed gassed, Watson had skipped about 50 yards down the sideline in celebration after helping stuff a fullback dive at the Terps’ 24-yard line and force a turnover on downs.
That elation didn’t continue for very long, though. Michigan racked up 465 yards while penalties and a passing game that managed 73 yards prevented Maryland from climbing back into the contest.
Through three quarters, the Terps had accumulated more penalty yards (89) than net total yards (87). Maryland put together a 15-play, 75-yard touchdown drive with the game already out of reach in the fourth quarter, and quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome ran for 66 yards on another touchdown drive.
That made the score seem respectable, but a difference of 245 yards between the offenses tells a different story.
“We had two good drives at the end, right?” Canada said. “Not that that matters, but we played hard. We didn’t quit.”