COLLEGE PARK, Md. — At least a dozen Michigan players had already made their way into the locker room when staff members ushered them back onto the field.
This was a moment in history. It was time to celebrate.
After surviving a scare from Maryland — a 31-24 final score — college football’s all-time wins leader hit a memorable mark: 1,000 victories.
Players returned to the field, gathered together and posed for a group photograph. Coaches, other staff members and even visiting fans — rushing onto the turf against orders — joined in for this historic moment.
Everything seemed perfect. There they were, clasping signs that read “1,000,” all smiles, with a backdrop of more than 15,000 Michigan fans roaring behind them.
Except, someone was missing: their head coach.
It was all quite indicative of Michigan’s 2023 season, a snapshot of a bizarre, drama-filled year: an unbeaten team reveling in the thrill of another victory while distractions swirl over the NCAA’s probe into the school’s sign-stealing scheme, with its coach, Jim Harbaugh, in the midst of a three-game suspension.
On Saturday from SECU Stadium — an interim coach on the sideline, their best receiver injured and their quarterback struggling — the Wolverines fought through their most challenging, pressure-packed, late-game moments of the season to move to 11-0.
They escaped, you might say. They survived, you may contend.
The seven-point win is 24 points shy of their average margin of victory through their first 10 games.
It was a weird one. Michigan, favored by 18 points, needed two safeties, one off a blocked punt and another on an intentional-grounding penalty in the end zone in the fourth quarter of a one-score game. The Wolverines needed two interceptions from Maryland QB Taulia Tagovailoa, one by Mike Sainristil in the final minutes to secure the victory. They needed a scoop-and-score as well.
On a day in which its offense didn’t break the 300-yard mark, Michigan needed much more: A stellar showing from a defensive front that rolled up four sacks and pressured Tagovailoa into poor decisions or wayward passes; a late-game punt from Tommy Doman to pin Maryland at its own 1-yard line; and a rocking group of visiting fans that came close to outnumbering the home crowd.
Let’s be honest: A week after a fairly convincing win in State College, win No. 1,000 was ugly.
“Maybe we needed this test a little bit,” said Michigan running back Blake Corum. “A close one like this. They gave us a run for our money out there.”
Head coach Mike Locksley and Maryland exposed Michigan’s offense. It flustered quarterback J.J. McCarthy into bad decisions like the one just before halftime, when the Wolverines were a few yards from taking a 30-10 halftime lead. On second-and-goal from the 7-yard line, McCarthy threw his first interception in seven games, 30 quarters and 158 attempts.
Later in the game, he misfired on a guaranteed long touchdown pass. He tossed wide of receivers. Overthrew others.
Few teams or players can continue to dominate game after game as Michigan has done. Everyone eventually has hiccups. This was a belch.
But the Wolverines are moving on, scraping it from their minds, turning attention to what looms as one of the most anticipated chapters in one of the sport’s most storied rivalries.
As time ticked down Saturday, Michigan fans sprung to life with a chant: “Beat! Oh. Hi. Oh! Beat! Oh. Hi. Oh!”
On the plane ride home to Ann Arbor, Corum expects the team’s full attention to turn to the Buckeyes. Already, a few players have watched film of Ohio State during this season. Soon, it’s all Ohio.
This is where a championship can be won and where hopes for the playoff rest, said Sainristil.
This is where legends are made and legacies are established. This is where interim coach Sherrone Moore may entrench himself for the full-time job if Harbaugh leaves this offseason for the NFL.
It’s all about this game — The Game.
If Moore forgot about that fact, a gaggle of Michigan fans, lurking in the stands minutes after the game, reminded him as he paced to the locker room.
“Next week, coach! Next week!” they screamed toward him.
It hasn't dawned on him yet — the magnitude of presiding over a Michigan team in The Game. Sixty times, in 118 chances, the Wolverines have won, including the last two — their first winning streak in the series since 1999-2000.
One week before The Game, Michigan provided ammunition for the doubters. The Wolverines looked mortal, at least offensively. They looked maybe even beatable. And at the very end, they looked… incomplete — missing from that photograph the man who helped get them here.
Afterward, Moore smiled when asked about a Harbaugh-less celebration for such a significant milestone in the program’s history.
“We need to edit the coach in there,” he said. “I think there is enough technology in the world to get that done.”