ANN ARBOR, MICH. -- Okay, let's try to figure this one out. Maryland, in the first half Saturday, recorded twice as many first downs as Michigan. Maryland had possession of the ball twice as long, made the Wolverines turn it over three times, and held the nation's leading rusher to a total of minus-one yard for eight of his nine carries.
The Terrapins rushed for more yards in the half than they had in any complete game this season. And quarterback Scott Zolak was en route to breaking his school record for completions in a single game.
All that, and the Terrapins were lucky to be trailing by 11 points at halftime.
For three quarters Saturday before the usual 100,000 or so at Michigan Stadium, Maryland outplayed the Wolverines. Seriously. (And since there was no TV, you'll have to use your imagination.) But all the Terrapins have to show for it is five injured players (though all are expected back next week), battered psyches and a 45-17 loss that was, strangely enough, competitive and lopsided at the same time. It was the closest 28-point game you'll ever see. Or not see, since you're still using your imagination.
These games with Michigan have become a scream. Five years ago, Maryland brought a roster loaded with future NFL players (more than a dozen) here and got shut out. And last year's 41-21 beating was so wildly one-sided that nobody in his right mind gave Maryland a chance of getting within three touchdowns Saturday, even though this Maryland team was one tackle away from coming into Ann Arbor undefeated.
Something disastrous always happens early in these games against Penn State and Michigan. Always. Saturday, Zolak was sacked on the first play, then threw an interception on the second, with linebacker Martin Davis running it back 27 yards for a touchdown. Only 56 seconds into the game, Michigan led, 7-0. We've seen it before.
But not only did the Terps respond well, but they did so with a touch of arrogance, even though they are clearly slower, smaller and weaker at virtually every position except H-back, a passing position that just might reach the Big Ten in 30 years or so.
After Michigan's touchdown, the Terps marched for a field goal. Even more remarkable than the fact Maryland scored, was the way its defense was slapping around Jon Vaughn, who a week ago had become the first Michigan player to rush for more than 200 yards in consecutive games.
This is what Vaughn (averaging 244 yards a game) did his first six carries: Stopped for no gain, stopped for loss of three, stopped for no gain, one-yard gain, two-yard gain, stopped for loss of three. That's six carries for minus-three yards. "We stopped Vaughn better probably than what we thought we could," Maryland Coach Joe Krivak said.
The Terps' offense, however, stopped itself better than Michigan could. An illegal motion penalty turned a 41-yard field goal attempt into a 46-yarder which Dan DeArmas missed by, oh, four feet. Then there was the interception Zolak threw at the goal line with four seconds left in the half when Maryland threatened to close to within four points. Krivak called a safe pass route, Zolak made it high-risk by underthrowing his receiver.
Early in the second quarter, Zolak had lobbed another interception, which Michigan free safety Vada Murray returned 34 yards, setting up a Michigan touchdown pass. Maryland's defense had done nothing to embarrass itself, but trailed, 14-3.
Vaughn got loose for a 21-yard carry (either this guy has Tony Dorsett warp-speed or the Terps have the slowest defensive players in college football history) as you knew he would, to make it 21-3.
Game over, Terpies hang their heads, right? Not exactly.
With Maryland's best all-purpose offensive player, H-back Frank Wycheck, injured and on the sideline, Zolak led a masterly drive that resulted in a touchdown to close to 21-10. He came back with that terrible, awful, woebegone interception that killed the would-be scoring drive. But the defense kept Vaughn going in reverse, and the offense befuddled Michigan once again, with Darren Colvin scoring a five-yard touchdown to make it 21-17 six minutes into the second half.
Maryland running? This team was lucky to get 50 yards a game against the Virginia Techs of the world, and here it was outrunning Michigan (25 yards rushing the first half). "I'm thinking, 'Man, we can move the ball on these guys,' " Zolak said. "We're only down four; we were down nine last week in the fourth quarter and pulled it out."
Last week was North Carolina State; this week was Michigan. Real football. Speed and power. Zolak was thinking, man we're moving the ball, but Krivak was thinking, how long can we stay in the game against physically superior players while shooting ourselves in the foot?
The answer was, not long at all. Michigan took a 28-17 lead, but Maryland was clearly in the game when Zolak took possession at the 20. First snap, disaster. "We were going on first sound, I came up under the center but I didn't say anything," Zolak said. The ball was snapped, Zolak wasn't ready, and it resulted in a fumble that Michigan recovered seven yards from another score.
The defense held somewhat, but a field goal made it 31-17. Now Maryland had to abandon the game plan and just pass. Another disaster. Zolak's got a nice arm and hangs tough in the pocket but as for mobility, well, no. The Wolverines pressured him into a couple of three-and-out series.
The Terps' offense had become, out of necessity, predictable; the defense was on the field too long, and this was the blueprint for a blowout. Vaughn punched one in from two yards for 38-17 and it really was over.
The Maryland coaches knew this was a distinct possibility. West Virginia is no Michigan. Neither is Clemson nor N.C. State. Krivak did some nice tinkering; he helped his team stop Vaughn by replacing a smallish safety with an extra defensive end. He told Zolak to concentrate on the short stuff to the H-backs and tight ends. But in the end, "they just started knocking us off the ball," Krivak said.
Eventually, this is what matters. Maryland, when it had NFL-caliber players at half the line positions, couldn't beat Michigan. Now, with athletic department priorities having changed, Maryland shouldn't even be playing Michigan.
But Georgia Tech, next week's opponent, is not Michigan. Neither, for a change, is Penn State, which comes up in a few weeks. Neither, for that matter, is Virginia. Yes, the Terps could be 4-1, but 3-2 for a team picked to finish last in the conference isn't bad. In fact it's downright respectable.