Despite the letdown in Lincoln (and what I have written in the past), MSU's playoff hopes aren't entirely dead. They are, however, in dire straits. Any chance the Spartans have to creep back into the national conversation starts this week.
Luckily, a completely off-the-rails Maryland team awaits.
The Terrapins are in the midst of a nightmare season. They have already fired their Head Coach, Randy Edsall and been all but eliminated from bowl contention (Technically they are still alive, but would have to win out and hope to get into an obscure bowl with 5 wins. Cue Lloyd Christmas: So you're tellin' me there's a chance!?!)
Since taking over, things haven't exactly been all roses and sunshine for Interim Head Coach Mike Locksley. The former Illinois offensive coordinator and New Mexico Head Coach has yet to record a win in three attempts and now sports a staggering 2-29 career coaching record. To his credit, the team has put up a fight against Penn State and Wisconsin but come up short in both, making them 0-fer the Big Ten. Locksley and company will try to change that this week, but face one of their toughest tests of the year in MSU.
To the tape...
When Maryland Has The Ball
The old saying goes "If you have more than one quarterback, you have none" and that appears to be the case here. Junior Perry Hills and Senior Caleb Rowe each have over 100 pass attempts on the season, but neither has completed more than 50.7% of those and each has at least 11 interceptions.
Hills has been the starter, but is regarded as more of a runner than a passer (92 carries on the season) and was pulled late last week in favor of Rowe last week when Maryland found themselves in an obvious passing scenario. When you have to sub in a guy with a 43.1% completion percentage because he is the better passer, you may have arrived at rock bottom.
Don't fret Testudo, the Dwayne Haskins Jr. era approacheth.
On the outside, there are no Stefon Diggs', Torrey Smith's or Darrius Heyward-Bey's. Levern Jacobs is the leading pass-catcher with 28 receptions for 320 yards and three scores and he has gone for over 50 yards exactly once on the year. No other receiver has more than 17 catches, 273 yards or three TD's. Personally, I would like to see what receivers coach Keenan McCardell still has in the tank. Let the coach play!
In theory, MSU should be able to slow down a stagnant passing game, as long as the Spartan pass rush can get some pressure against a banged up offensive line. After the way this season has unfolded, counting on anything seems foolish.
This is where Maryland makes what little offensive hay they can.
The running attack is by no means potent, but it provides the only diversity to be found in the playbook. In addition to his passing duties, Hills is also the team's second leading rusher with 503 yards on the season, including a 75-yard scamper.
At running back, senior Brandon Ross leads the team with 524 yards on the ground, but has seen his workload fall off almost completely; only getting double digit carries once in the last four weeks. 6'1" 210-lb Wes Brown has took most of the carries last week and has apparently surpassed Ross on the depth chart. Brown had his best output of the Big Ten season a week ago tallying 34 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. That's just the type of season it has been.
One similarity between MSU and Maryland's this year is that the Terps line is currently in shambles, a refrain Spartan faithful know all too well. They will be starting another new combo this week, so expect to see whoever is under center to be running a lot, both out of design and probable fear.
This game should feature a lot of run-blitzing and daring Hills or Rowe to make plays down the field with their arms, not unlike last week. This time, it's fair to expect some more positive results.
When Michigan State Has The Ball
Despite a shaky start, Connor Cook put up gaudy numbers last week. In fact, his 62.2% completion percentage was his highest since Purdue, and fourth highest on the year overall. He also extended his streak of 300+ yard performances (335) to four and had his second straight four touchdown day. Cook did throw his third interception of the season, but overall had a great statistical evening.
The pass-catchers were excellent again, as well. Aaron Burbridge continued his assault on opposing defenses with 10 catches for 164 yards and a TD, while Macgarrett Kings had easily his best all-around day with a 4/97/2 line. The oft-overlooked R.J. Shelton chipped in four catches for 41 yards and turned in the catch of the day (again).
Maryland has held Joel Stave and CJ Beathard in check the last two weeks, but when they faced an NFL-caliber signal-caller in Christian Hackenberg, the were torched to the tune of 315 yards and 3 TD's. As long as he is engaged and the line can give him some time, Cook should be able to flirt with another 300 yard performance.
The Terps D doesn't have much going for it, but it does feature two electric pass-rushers in Yannick Ngakoue and Quinton Jefferson. Ngakoue was named to multiple preseason All-Big Ten Defensive teams and has more than lived up to the hype registering 11 sacks and generally causing headaches for opposing lines. His running mate, Jefferson, has 6.5 sacks and 10.5 TFL's, as well.
One way Maryland can stay in this game is by making Cook uncomfortable and forcing him into mistakes. A fearsome pass rush from Ngakoue and Jefferson is the surest way to make that happen.
Between the injuries on the offensive line and in the backfield, the running game has never really gotten on track for the Spartans, at least with any type of week to week consistency.
Early in the season Madre London looked like a real deal threat with top-end straight-line speed. He hurt his ankle and hasn't played since. On multiple occasions LJ Scott has looked every bit like the standout recruit he was heralded as. He has been limited by a bum shoulder. Those injuries and the general ineffectiveness of Delton Williams since his return have opened the door for Gerald Holmes and he took advantage racking up 117 yards and a score against the Huskers.
The London-Scott-Holmes trio has combined for 1,215 yards this season, which is a nice output especially considering how beat up the line has been and that every opponent has bailed out to stop the run. The issues creep up with the lack of rhythm for each back.
Holmes' 22 carries last week were the most by an individual running back the entire year. Depth is great, but it may behoove MSU to let one guy start to carry the load. Injuries currently dictate that will be Holmes. Let's see if he can build upon his breakout game this week against a Maryland defense that hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher since Ohio State.
In terms of personnel, Linebacker Jermaine Carter leads Maryland in tackles with 78 total. He also has 8.5 TFL's on the year but no sacks. Leading tacklers two through four all play in the defensive backfield. Again, MSU should have no trouble scoring.
Good news and bad news for Maryland here. We'll start with the bad because I'm mean. Groza Award-wining Kicker Brad Craddock will miss at least this week's game after having wrist surgery. The Aussie was injured attempting a tackle last week and for a team that needs all the scoring help it can get, that is bad. His backup, Adam Greene, is 1-for-2 on the year, with a long of 44 yards.
On the bright side, Will Likely, arguably the best return man in the nation, still exists. Likely leads the country in punt return yardage, is 7th in kick return yardage and has taken three returns the house this year alone (two punts and a kickoff). MSU's coverage teams are less-than-good and not noticeably improving, unless you consider not allowing touchdowns improvement. Unless MSU is extremely disciplined, Likely could be in for a field day.
On MSU's side, it looks like Michael Geiger might have found his stroke after nailing a 46-yarder in Lincoln. Jake Hartbarger also punted the ball well and RJ Shelton had one nice kick return.
The key in this one is slowing down Likely. His explosiveness could make this one closer than it should (read: just like every other game).
Bottom Line and Prediction
By all accounts, MSU should smoke this Maryland team. They are better every facet of the game outside of special teams (and maybe the secondary). They have Connor Cook, Aaron Burbridge and a defensive line that should manhandle an injury-riddled Terp offensive line.
Unfortunately we've heard this story before. "MSU should dominate" or "MSU is more talented". Whatever cliché you can come up with, I have written and wholeheartedly believed. Every game had a happy ending every time except one, and that would be last week.
As you can tell, my confidence is shaken, perhaps unjustly. MSU did control much of the game against Nebraska and when Holmes capped off a nearly nine-minute 4th quarter drive with a touchdown, the clock read 4:16 and it looked over.
Even when Nebraska pulled to within five with under two minutes to go, I thought surely MSU had it in hand. After all, we'd seen this act before. Alas, the fire the Spartans had played with all season finally burnt them.
First, there was Dave Warner's, um, interesting 3rd-and-8 reverse end around to Jamal Lyles call. Then that depleted secondary went nuclear, giving up pass plays of 28, 33 and 30 yards through the air, allowing Nebraska to score the go-ahead touchdown in only 38 seconds.
Say what you want about the (bad) call on Edmondson, but the Spartans never should have allowed themselves to get to that point in the first place.
I say all of that to say this: this one will probably be closer than it should be. I think MSU is out for revenge and couldn't possibly ask for a better opponent than Maryland, but until we are proven otherwise, I'm going to pick a close one.
Likely takes at least one to the house, but the Spartans win.