Jim Harbaugh, Michigan host former assistant DJ Durkin, Maryland
(AP) Jim Harbaugh will see a close friend and former comrade on the other sideline Saturday, but game day is not usually a time for the intense Michigan coach to play nice.
The Wolverines are ranked No. 3 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings and Harbaugh’s squad can’t afford a stumble when it hosts improving Maryland in Saturday’s Big Ten contest (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.
First-year Terrapins coach DJ Durkin did an exceptional job running Michigan’s defense during Harbaugh’s first season at the helm and is now working on establishing Maryland (5-3, 2-3) as a viable program. Durkin also was on Harbaugh’s Stanford staff from 2007-09.
An upset at the famed Big House would rate as Durkin’s first signature win as a head coach.
“As a competitor, you look at things as a great challenge. That’s why you want to go play against the best and see how you measure up,” Durkin said at a press conference. “That’s the approach we’ve got to take. We certainly understand what they’re capable of. That’s what makes it fun. That’s why you want to play in these types of games and be a part of this conference.”
Durkin credits Harbaugh for aiding his development as a coach — “there’s a long list of things that I’ve learned from him, certainly,” he said — and Harbaugh was only too happy to shower him with praise early in the week.
“He’s done a fabulous job,” Harbaugh said at a press conference. “I’ve always respected DJ as a tremendous competitor at the highest level. You see the energy, you see the strength, you see the competitiveness, execution on the field.
“The flip side of that is that we know this will be a big game, a championship game. This will be a real test for our club.”
The Wolverines (8-0, 5-0) hold a one-game lead over Ohio State and Penn State in the Big Ten’s East division. The stakes were already high but the initial rankings made the task even clearer.
Alabama and Clemson are ranked ahead of Michigan in the CFP rankings with Texas A&M and Washington looming right behind. But Ohio State is No. 6 and it reasons that the loser of the Michigan-Ohio State contest later this month will be all but eliminated from one of the four spots.
That means the Wolverines need to avoid upset attempts in coming weeks and keep their record unscathed as long as possible.
Michigan possesses one of the nation’s top defenses but a closer-than-expected 32-23 victory against Michigan State last Saturday, and the high number of yards allowed, prompted some concern.
Michigan was allowing a national-best 207.9 yards per game entering the contest against the Spartans. That figure now stands at 231.3 after the defensive unit allowed 401 yards to the Spartans, a teetering squad that lost their sixth consecutive game.
“I think this was probably one of our worst games,” senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. “The first drive, they did some perimeter-running — stuff we hadn’t seen yet. We calmed down and then just took our foot off the pedal and stopped concentrating. That’s what happened.
“That shouldn’t have been close. And we made it close because we didn’t execute.”
The play of Lewis and sophomore outside linebacker Jabrill Peppers (team-best 12.5 tackles for losses) are among the reasons for why the Wolverines lead the nation in total defense, scoring defense (11.6 points per game) and passing defense (120.1).
Maryland, which has lost three of its last four games, relies heavily on the ground attack of sophomore Ty Johnson (624 yards, 10.4 average) and true freshman Lorenzo Harrison (575 yards, 7.3 average). Senior quarterback Perry Hills passed for 1,070 yards and 10 touchdowns against only three interceptions.
The Terrapins, who allowed a season worst for points in last Saturday’s 42-36 loss to Indiana, will try to slow a Michigan attack that has topped 40 six times. Junior weak-side linebacker Shane Cockerille has a team-best 73 tackles and junior outside linebacker Jesse Aniebonam leads the squad with 5.5 sacks.
Wolverines sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight has passed for 1,691 yards and 13 touchdowns against three interceptions while senior receiver Amara Darboh has 38 receptions for 664 yards and five touchdowns after accumulating a career-best 165 yards against Michigan State.
Slowing down the Michigan offense will be necessary if Maryland is to pull off the upset. And Terrapins senior defensive end Roman Braglio is relishing the chance.
“It’s definitely an opportunity of a lifetime to do that,” Braglio said. “We’re going to take full advantage of it. They’ve got a big target on their back. That’s what happens when you’re at the top of the mountain. We’re going to come and try to take it.”
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