5 reasons Maryland could be Michigan football's toughest test since Notre Dame

Wolverines have won 4 straight games

Karan Higdon #22 of the Michigan Wolverines runs the ball to score a first quarter touchdown against the Western Michigan Broncos at Michigan Stadium on September 8, 2018 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - It's been more than a month since Michigan's opening game against Notre Dame, and the team is a perfect 4-0 over that span.

Michigan easily dispatched Western Michigan, SMU and Nebraska and survived a scare on the road against Northwestern. Now, only one game separates the Wolverines and a chance to change the narrative that they can't win big games under Jim Harbaugh.

Maryland is heading to Ann Arbor this weekend, and although the Terps aren't considered among the Big Ten's upper tier, they're better than Michigan's previous four opponents.

Here's a look at why Maryland could be Michigan's toughest test since Notre Dame.

1. Which Maryland will show up?

College football can be just as much about preparation and motivation as it is about talent. Maryland is a tricky game in that regard because there are two versions of the team that can show up.

When most people around the sport think of Maryland, they probably think of the team that lost to Temple three weeks ago.

The Terrapins didn't just lose to Temple -- they got run out of their own building. Temple outgained Maryland 429-195 in yardage and won the game by three touchdowns. Maryland converted one of 12 third-down attempts and held the ball for fewer than 23 1/2 minutes.

Performances like the one against Temple make it easy for teams to overlook Maryland.

But that's dangerous for teams such as Michigan because the Terps have gotten up for big games this season.

In the opener, Maryland beat a Texas team that is undefeated since and ranked No. 19 in the country. Texas fell behind 24-7 in the first half before taking a brief lead and getting shut out in the fourth quarter.

Antoine Brooks Jr. of the Maryland Terrapins celebrates after intercepting a Texas Longhorns pass in the closing minutes of the Terrapins 34-29 win at FedExField on Sept. 1, 2018, in Landover, Maryland. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

The performance against Texas wasn't an anomaly. A week after losing to Temple, Maryland hosted an undefeated Minnesota team and won convincingly. Maryland put up 432 yards and held Minnesota to 263 yards, winning the game 42-13.

Maryland's inconsistency makes Saturday a tricky game for Michigan because the Terrapins have been bad enough to overlook but good enough to beat a ranked team.

Northwestern was a tough test because it was on the road, but Maryland is the best all-around team Michigan has faced since the opener.

2. Trap game

Saturday will be the definition of a trap game for Michigan, as the Wolverines are coming off a close, emotional road win and looking forward to three straight games against ranked opponents.

Fans have been talking about the three-game stretch against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State since the Notre Dame game ended, and now that it's only one week away, it's definitely on the minds of Michigan's players.

But they can't afford to overlook Maryland, especially with a history of falling behind early in games. Michigan trailed Notre Dame by 18 points in the first half and Northwestern by 17 points in the first half.

The next three games will likely define Michigan's 2018 season, but that's only if the Wolverines survive this weekend. The night game against Wisconsin will only have conference title implications if Michigan first beats Maryland.

3. Maryland's rushing attack

Michigan has one of the best rushing defenses in the country this season, but it's going to be tested this weekend against an effective group of running backs.

Don Brown's defense ranks seventh in the country in run defense, allowing just 86.4 yards per game. Michigan allows the fourth-fewest yards per carry at 2.37.

Maryland is the 11th-best running team in the country, averaging 258.5 yards per game. The Terrapins average more than 6 yards per carry, sixth in the nation.

So far, the best rushing team Michigan has played is Western Michigan, which ranks 38th in the nation in rushing yards per game and 21st in yards per carry. Both SMU and Northwestern are outside the top 100 in rushing yards per game.

Lavert Hill, Josh Metellus and Chase Winovich celebrate during Michigan's win over Nebraska. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The Wolverines have been elite run stoppers under Brown, but they haven't really been tested this season in that regard. Maryland has a 300-yard rusher in Ty Johnson and a good second option in Anthony McFarland, who has rushed for 291 yards this season. Johnson averages 7.5 yards per carry and McFarland averages 10.8 yards per carry.

Tayon Fleet-Davis is the No. 3 running back with 148 rushing yards on 30 carries. He leads the team with three rushing touchdowns.

4. Solid Terrapins defense

Maryland's defense has been surprisingly strong this season after ranking outside the country's top 80 in 2017.

The Terrapins are 20th in the country in terms of total defense, 18th in rushing defense and 52nd in passing defense. This weekend's matchup will pit strength against strength, as Harbaugh will want to establish the run.

Maryland's defensive numbers are a bit skewed by the four offenses they've played -- Texas, Bowling Green, Temple and Minnesota all rank outside the top 75 in total offense.

Texas is in the same range offensively as Michigan, however, so it's not like Maryland hasn't seen a unit with this type of ability. Texas scored 27 points on offense against Maryland, and if Michigan can do the same, it has a great chance to win.

Maryland's defense isn't elite, but it will put up more of a fight than the terrible defensive units of Nebraska and SMU.

5. Turnover margin

The No. 1 ingredient for teams looking to pull major upsets in college football is to win the turnover margin. Michigan has been average in the turnover battle this season, while Maryland has been one of the best teams in the nation.

In five games, Michigan has forced five turnovers and committed four of its own. Since coughing it up twice against Notre Dame, turnovers haven't been a problem for the Wolverines on offense.

Michigan QB Shea Patterson in his first game at Michigan Stadium. (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

But it hasn't been a strength of the defense, either.

For a unit as aggressive as Brown's defense, Michigan's big plays have been of the negative yardage variety. It doesn't necessarily force a ton of turnovers.

Maryland, on the other hand, thrives off the turnover battle, ranking in the top 10 in turnover margin. It has two takeaways per game compared to just three offensive turnovers in four games.

Six of Maryland's eight takeaways have come via the interception, so it will be on quarterback Shea Patterson to make sure the Wolverines take care of the football. He's only thrown two interceptions in 111 pass attempts this season, so Michigan should be in good hands.

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