Michigan football's to-do list in final test before 3 straight ranked matchups

Maryland visits Ann Arbor before Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State games

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

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - When Michigan lost its opener against Notre Dame, there was only one way to get the season back on track: win the next five games against unranked opponents.

The Wolverines are one game away from surviving that stretch and setting up a huge three-week stretch against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State.

Standing in the way is an enigmatic Maryland team that has knocked off Texas, boat raced Minnesota and lost by three touchdowns against Temple.

Maryland might be the best team Michigan has faced since Notre Dame. Or the Terps could become the latest victim of a Big House beatdown.

Michigan is a heavy favorite in the matchup, and after falling down 17-0 in Northwestern last weekend, the Wolverines should have their full attention on Maryland.

But that doesn't mean we can't look ahead.

If Michigan hopes to be a true contender in the Big Ten this season, it's all about the three games that follow Maryland. Here's what the Wolverines have to do this weekend to prepare for what's ahead.

Get healthy

Every team in the country is dealing with some type of injury concern at this point in the season, and Michigan is no exception.

Two of Michigan's top offensive weapons are on the shelf. Tarik Black hasn't played in a game this season and Chris Evans has been out since the SMU game. Jim Harbaugh expressed optimism that Black would return this season, and Evans has been a week-to-week decision.

Black was Michigan's top wide receiver in the early stages of the 2017 season before a foot injury sidelined him for good. With Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins emerging as legitimate weapons in the passing game, the addition of Black would make it even tougher for teams to prepare for Michigan's offense.

Chris Evans tries to avoid the tackle of Elijah McQueen against SMU on Sept. 15, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Evans was averaging 5.7 yards per carry as Karan Higdon's backup. With Evans out against Northwestern, Higdon was forced to carry the ball 30 times.

Rashan Gary has also been battling nagging injuries all season, and he left the Northwestern game for awhile before returning to the field. Gary is half of the duo -- with Chase Winovich -- that makes Michigan's defensive line tick. If he needs another week to get closer to 100 percent, this should be the week.

Dominate the first half

Michigan has gotten in trouble this season when it gets off to slow starts. It couldn't climb out of an 18-point hole against Notre Dame and just barely survived a 17-point scare at Northwestern.

The Wolverines stifled Notre Dame in the second half of the opener, allowing just three points after getting torched for three touchdowns on the first four drives. By the end of the game, Michigan had outgained the Fighting Irish despite trailing for more than 58 minutes.

The first half of the Northwestern game followed a similar script, as the Wildcats scored on their first three drives and Michigan's offense looked stagnant. It took a second-half shutout by the defense for the Wolverines to come back and finally take a lead on their second-to-last drive of the game.

It will be much tougher to come back against the teams coming up on the schedule, so Michigan has to put the sluggish starts in the past. Maryland is capable of getting out to a hot start, as it did with a 24-7 lead against Texas, so the first several drives will be a good test for Michigan.

Tighten up the passing game

Michigan's passing attack is vastly improved from a year ago under the leadership of Shea Patterson. But there were a few mistakes against Northwestern that have to be cleaned up.

Drops plagued Michigan last season and even in the opener against Notre Dame.

In the first half against Northwestern, sure-handed tight end Sean McKeon dropped what would have been a huge gain into Northwestern territory. Instead, Michigan failed to pick up two yards on the next two plays and turned the ball over to the Wildcats at midfield.

Shea Patterson #2 of the Michigan Wolverines throws a pass while playing the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 1, 2018 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Moments later, the score was 17-0.

It seemed like that missed opportunity stuck with Patterson, as he missed a couple of open receivers before halftime. In the first drive of the third quarter, he overthrew Grant Perry in the end zone as the Wolverines settled for a field goal.

Patterson has been mostly on point all season, but there were throws at Northwestern he would love to have back.

Michigan's run game has been inconsistent this year, and the passing game can really open things up for Higdon on the ground. Wisconsin is much more susceptible to the pass than the run on defense, so Michigan needs to get back on track against Maryland.

Take advantage of defensive line depth

The recipe to win on the biggest stages in college football starts with a dominant defensive line, a trend that started with Alabama and has continued at Clemson, Ohio State and other yearly championship contenders.

Harbaugh has built a similarly formidable defensive line, and even if Gary sits out against Maryland, there are several players who can cause chaos in the backfield.

Winovich has been one of the best defensive players in the country this season, tallying 32 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. He's commanding the offensive line's attention and opening up holes for teammates.

Chase Winovich leaves the field after a 56-10 win over Nebraska on Sept. 22, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Kwity Paye burst onto the scene against Northwestern, picking up two sacks, four solo tackles and a quarterback hit in Gary's absence. The true sophomore has been excellent this season and already has 3.5 tackles for loss in limited playing time.

True freshman Aidan Hutchinson didn't play against Northwestern, but he's been a pleasant surprise on defense this year, getting into the backfield at will and even forcing a safety against Nebraska by batting a pass.

The Wolverines also have Michael Dwumfour and Bryan Mone, who have combined for 3.5 tackles for loss this season, on the inside.

Carlo Kemp was a difference maker against SMU with 1.5 tackles for loss and half a sack. He made another tackle in the backfield against Northwestern.

Michigan has enough pass rushing defensive linemen to use a deep rotation and keep everyone fresh. That's particularly advantageous in Don Brown's aggressive scheme.

The Maryland game is another opportunity to get everyone into the mix, especially those who don't have much exposure to Big Ten competition.

Keep Patterson upright

Since allowing three sacks and six quarterback hurries against Notre Dame, Michigan's offensive line has greatly improved. Each of the last three opponents have managed just one sack against Michigan, while Northwestern was only able to hurry Patterson three times.

Wisconsin and Michigan State have strong defensive lines, but Michigan can't afford a repeat of the Notre Dame debacle. If the offensive line can have a fifth-straight solid game this weekend, it will go a long way toward building confidence heading into the ranked matchups.

Jon Runyan Jr. and Juwann Bushell-Beatty will be the ones to watch as they have improved noticeably at the tackle spots since the opener.

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