Michigan football makes clutch plays late to avoid Maryland upset, 34-27

Michael Cohen
Detroit Free Press

The move that sent Michigan football fans streaming toward the exits was the signature jump cut from tailback Blake Corum. He’d taken a handoff from quarterback J.J. McCarthy late in the fourth quarter of a game the Wolverines were seeking to preserve and punctuated the afternoon instead. 

Corum's jump cut behind the line of scrimmage — from right to left, on a dime, with a wall of bodies ahead of him — opened a lane around the left side of U-M’s formation, a space left vacant by Maryland's desperate collapse toward the middle of the field. The play was designed to attack a gap on the other side of the offensive line, but Corum made a calculated risk that he could rely on his skills and the players ahead of him if he rerouted on the fly.

"I saw there was no corner over there and I trusted my guys to block," Corum said. "Scared me for a second because I was like, s***, if I do it, there might be a holding call. But I just did it and it wasn’t (called)."

Corum juked outside and sprinted into the open space to gallop down the sideline for a 47-yard touchdown that secured a hard-fought, come-from-behind 34-27 win over Maryland. His touchdown offered a fitting conclusion for an afternoon in which Corum enjoyed the best game of his career with backup Donovan Edwards unavailable due to injury. He carried 30 times for 243 yards and two touchdowns behind an offensive line that manhandled the Terrapins in the trenches despite missing left guard Trevor Keegan.

More:Michigan football got its first test against Maryland. It (mostly) passed

McCarthy completed 18 of 26 passes for 220 yards and two scores in the first Big Ten start of his career. It was an uneven performance defined as much by missed opportunities and fumbles as the cool third-down conversions and clutch fourth-quarter touchdown to wide receiver Roman Wilson.  

Cornerback DJ Turner and safety R.J. Moten both notched interceptions of Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, who absorbed two sacks and five hits from coordinator Jesse Minter’s blitz-happy unit. He took more and more punishment as the game continued — including one from defensive end Mike Morris that sent him to the medical tent — before backup Billy Edwards Jr. replaced him. Edwards led a touchdown drive and executed a two-point conversion with 45 seconds left to pull the Terrapins within seven.

U-M recovered an onside kick to seal the win.

"It was gritty," head coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Four quarters of every possession mattered. It was like a basketball game, you know? Every one of them. Every one of them mattered. Guys hung in and fought. You have character-type building games and (I was) proud of the grittiness of the club today."

Turning the tide 

Coach Jim Harbaugh’s first critical in-game decision of 2022 arrived with less than a minute remaining in the second quarter and his team trailing for the first time this season. The Wolverines faced fourth-and-1 from the Maryland 33-yard line, trailing by 13-10, and Harbaugh had little more than a few seconds to choose between running a play or kicking a field goal.

He rushed his offense to the line of scrimmage with McCarthy in the shotgun and Corum alongside. McCarthy caught the snap as the Terrapins scrambled into position and handed to Corum for an inside run. Corum broke through the left side of the defense and raced to the end zone untouched for a score that ignited the crowd and forced a Maryland assistant to hurl his hat at the turf.

"That was only supposed to go for like one or two yards," Corum said. "But, you know, the coaches got it in quick, J.J. snapped the ball quick and we caught them off guard. ... That definitely was a momentum change in my opinion."

The fourth-down choice buoyed the Wolverines after Maryland had moved the ball easily for parts of the first half, scoring on its first three possessions. Tagovailoa enjoyed extended time in a comfortable pocket when U-M's pass rush struggled to generate pressure without blitzing. When kicked Chad Ryland kicked a 52-yard field goal early in the second quarter, the Maryland sideline brimmed with belief.

Harbaugh's decision proved game-altering, and Michigan never trailed again.

The good and the bad 

In the span of a half-dozen snaps midway through the second quarter, McCarthy demonstrated the breadth of his playmaking spectrum — from the dazzling and electrifying to the foolhardy and headstrong. 

His temporary unraveling began with a fumble on a designed run from Michigan’s 27-yard line, the ball ripped from his arms after gaining four yards. A recovery by wideout Cornelius Johnson gave the Wolverines another chance, albeit behind the chains on third-and-7, and that’s when McCarthy ignited the maize and blue crowd. 

McCarthy’s quest to buy extra time in the pocket transformed into a zigzagging odyssey from right to left and back again before looping around the right side and scampering upfield to move the chains. It was the kind of play backup quarterback Cade McNamara simply can’t make.  

Several plays later, on second-and-10, McCarthy again retreated deeper and deeper behind the line of scrimmage in hopes of summoning the spectacular. A pair of Maryland defenders sandwiched McCarthy as he released the ball to force his second fumble of the drive. Again, the Wolverines recovered when center Olu Oluwatimi smothered it. 

"(On the first one), I was seat-belting it like I always was told to and I was just squeezing too hard," McCarthy said. "Once one little budge happened, the ball came out. That’s always a huge priority for us is ball security and I just gotta do a better job.

"(On the second one), I just gotta get rid of the ball and make sure I don’t get myself in a situation like that. I kinda knew I was down just because the ball hit the ground when I was trying to stay up. That’s two plays that I really want back."

Both will be used as teaching moments in the wake of McCarthy's recent comment about learning to avoid unnecessary hits. Prior to the win over Hawaii, McCarthy told reporters he considers it selfish when he fights for extra yardage and exposes himself to contact.

It's something he must improve as Big Ten play continues. 

"It definitely wasn’t my best performance," McCarthy said, "and I want some things back. But I was happy with the way we were able to move the ball in times where we needed to respond."

A perfect start 

Scoreboard watchers across the country might have been puzzled when they saw the Wolverines leading by a touchdown eight seconds into a game that began with Michigan kicking off. The scenario seemed illogical.  

It unfolded like this: Jake Moody lofted his kick toward Maryland returner Tai Felton at the 2-yard line. The ball clanged off Felton’s helmet and ricocheted into the path of several onrushing Wolverines. Reserve tight end Matthew Hibner pounced on the loose ball at the Terrapins’ 10-yard line, leaving Felton with nothing to do but scream and rip off his helmet in frustration.   

"That’s a great way to start a game," Harbaugh said. "Great recovery by Matt Hibner. Can’t tell you we drew it up like that, but it was great that we jumped on their mistake."

Co-offensive coordinators Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss searched for an early dagger with a play-action pass on Michigan’s first play from scrimmage. McCarthy executed a great fake to Corum before sliding to his right and finding Luke Schoonmaker on a corner route for the touchdown.  

With eight seconds gone, the Terrapins already trailed 7-0.   

Injury report 

The Wolverines entered Saturday’s game without several starters and key players who were sidelined due to injury.  

Edwards (leg injury), Keegan (undisclosed injury), tight end Erick All (undisclosed injury), inside linebacker Nikhai Hill-Green (soft-tissue injury) and McNamara (leg injury) were all unavailable. Harbaugh provided no update on All's status when asked in his postgame news conference.

Edwards’ replacement, true freshman CJ Stokes, fumbled on his first carry against Maryland and never touched the ball again. His miscue led to a 52-yard field goal for the Terrapins that saddled U-M with its first deficit of the season, 13-10. 

"Young CJ stokes didn’t quite realize just how much guys are going for the ball, you know?" Harbaugh said. "Coming from angles where you don’t see them."

Schoonmaker became a larger part of Michigan’s offense with All unable to play. His early touchdown kickstarted an afternoon in which he had more catches in the first half (five for 50 yards) than he did in any game last year. He finished with a team-high seven catches for 72 yards.  

Former four-star prospect Giovanni El-Hadi took Keegan’s place at left guard for the second consecutive game.  

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.