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Michigan State Football Preview: Game Seven — Maryland

The Spartans face a must-win game against the improved and always colorfully dressed Terrapins

NCAA Football: Maryland at Central Florida Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Another week, another debacle.

Two weeks ago, I was unable to watch as MSU was bullied 31-14 by BYU. Last week, in my infinite wisdom, I chose to go to East Lansing and attend the game.

Going from blissfully unaware one week to seeing Brian Lewerke nearly get decapitated 10 yards in front of your face the next is enough to give you whiplash. In scuba terms, I came up for air too fast and got a gnarly case of the bends.

But, it’s comforting to know that there are fans like you, dear reader, who are as dedicated to self torture as I am. Thank you for making me feel saner.

This week in “Complete Disaster Theater” the Spartans take on the 4-2 Maryland Terrapins. Surely new Head Coach and ex-Michigan defensive coordinator DJ Durkin holds no ill will towards MSU. Why would he!?

Ah right, that old chestnut. It’s good to smile again. Please send help.

How We’re Feeling.gif

Disaster. Train Wreck. Dumpster Fire.

All of these terms apply to Michigan State’s four-game losing streak.

The Spartans are broken in so many (all) phases and have found so many different ways to lose it borders on impressive.

Last week’s 54-40 defeat, on homecoming, to a 2-3 Northwestern team that lost at home to Illinois State by a score of 9-7 only a few weeks back, was the cherry on top of the shit sundae.

Not that there was much sugar-coating it before but things are as bad as they have ever been for Mark Dantonio’s program and it doesn’t look like they are turning around this season. The reason being that MSU simply has too many problems to fix.

It sounds like an exaggeration but almost literally everything is wrong with this team.

Their defense has been bulldozed in the run game and shredded in the passing game, often at the same time, while the offense has quarterbacks missing open throws and a line that can’t open holes for the backs or slow down a pass rush. On top of it all, the special teams have been terrible (except you, Jake Hartbarger. Stay golden ponyboy).

If you have non-sports hobbies, I recommend using the next six Saturdays to explore them. If you don’t (me) then l guess we should find you some things to watch for.

Maryland Offense vs Michigan State Defense

NCAA Football: Purdue at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Notable Terrapins

  • Leading Passer: QB Perry Hills — 50-for-80 (62.5%) 622 yards, 6 TD/2 INT
  • Leading Rusher: RB Lorenzo Harrison — 48 carries, 397 yards, 4 TD
  • Leading Receiver: WR DJ Moore — 19 catches, 258 yards, 3 TD

Notable Spartans

  • Leading Tackler: S Montae Nicholson — 54 tackles, 2 TFL
  • Leading Sack Artist: DT Raequan Williams — 2 Sacks, 4.5 TFL
  • Leading Ball Hawk: CB Vayante Copeland/LB Andrew Dowell/CB Darian Hicks/CB Justin Layne/LB Jon Reschke — 1 (tie)

The most disheartening part of last week’s loss wasn’t the final tally or that they made Clayton Thorson — like Alex Hornibrook, Richard Lagow and Taysom Hill before him — look like Peyton Manning. It was the fact that Northwestern didn’t even do anything fancy and still scored over half a hundred points.

Bubble screens, off tackle runs and post routes from the slot. Every. Single. Time.

Those passes have always given the Pat Narduzzi defensive model a lot of trouble, but this was comical. Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson were burnt time and time again by receivers, Vayante Copeland was shaken at least twice on long Justin Jackson touchdown runs and Justin Layne — who did have a nice pick-six and has the makings of a high caliber corner — completely blew coverage allowing a long TD. I’ll cut Layne some slack since he just started playing the position three weeks ago, but the other DB’s, especially upperclassmen in Cox and Nicholson, don’t get the same benefit of the doubt.

Luckily for them, Maryland is a very run heavy outfit which might be putting it lightly. Through six games the Terps have rushed the ball over 100 times more than they have thrown it (259 rushes to 143 passes) and have done so without a workhorse back. Take a look at their rushing statistics so far...

That’s seven different players — including two quarterbacks — with a rushing touchdown, four with at least 44 carries and six with over 100 rushing yards. The linebackers and safeties better be ready to get physical.

By the look of those stats it may not matter, but they will probably get senior quarterback Perry Hills back after missing last week’s loss to Minnesota. If he can’t go it’ll be freshman true freshman Tyrrell Pigrome, who may be the most exciting runner on the team. Check out his game-winning touchdown run against UCF from earlier this season.

At this point, it might behoove the Spartans to have Hills healthy.

The two main running backs — freshman Lorenzo Harrison and sophomore Ty Johnson — each have runs of 60+ yards to their name and Johnson also has 66-yard receiving touchdown on the year. Each will surely get their fair share of touches.

If Maryland does decide to actually throw the ball — which Pigrome was forced to do 37 times against Minnesota — sophomore DJ Moore and senior Teldrick Morgan will likely do most of the damage. The duo are tied for the team lead in receptions with 19 and account for five of the eight touchdown catches. Don’t forget about Levern Jacobs, though. The senior erupted for 10 catches and 82 yards last week after only having 3 catches for 20 yards coming into the game.

Ultimately, MSU’s best chance is to slow down all those runners and take their chances with Hills or Pigrome throwing the ball — even though they can’t pressure any opposing quarterback. If the running game is rolling this could be BYU all over again.

Michigan State Offense vs Maryland Defense

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Notable Spartans

  • Leading Passer: QB Tyler O’Connor — 91-for-149 (61.1%) 1,257 yards, 11 TD/6 INT
  • Leading Rusher: RB LJ Scott — 73 carries, 336 yards, 2 TD
  • Leading Receiver: WR RJ Shelton — 28 catches, 452 yards, 4 TD

Notable Terrapins

  • Leading Tackler: LB Shane Cockerille — 49 tackles, 4 TFL
  • Leading Sack Artist: DE Jesse Aniebonam — 5.5 sacks, 8.5 TFL
  • Leading Ball Hawk: LB Jermaine Carter/CB Alvin Hill/CB J.C. Jackson — 1 (tie)

I keep telling myself “this is the week” the Spartan offense turns the proverbial corner, takes a noticeable step forward and finds something they can lean on to score points. This is dangerously optimistic but in the second half last week they might have actually done it, if only by accident.

Facing a 16-point deficit with less than seven minutes left in the third quarter, Dave Warner and company no other choice but to pull an ineffective Lewerke, play with some tempo and let Tyler O’Connor throw the ball.

The results were 23 points, 281 yards and three touchdowns through the air in less than a quarter and a half. It wasn’t enough to save their paper mache defense, but it was the first significant sign of life from an anemic offense in over a month.

For a team clinging to bowl hopes halfway through a season that’s a big deal. Even if you plan to play all three quarterbacks, hopefully they keep it up tempo and ride that wave.

They’ll be tempted to go back to the run-first style, though, as Maryland has the 89th ranked run defense in the country surrendering 179.5 yards per game — only one spot ahead of Notre Dame and five behind Indiana. Linebackers Shane Cockerille (49 tackles) and Jermaine Carter (46 tackles) are usually the ones cleaning up the mess.

What they lack in run stopping they make up for in tackles for loss. As a team, Maryland has 43 TFL’s and 18 sacks (2nd in the Big Ten). Eight Terrapins have recorded multiple TFL’s with end Jesse Aniebonam (5.5 sacks, 8.5 TFL) and tackle Kingsley Opara (#AllCFBNameTeam — 5.5 TFL) leading the way. Carter (3 sacks, 4 TFL) also gets into the backfield quite a bit from his linebacker spot. Great!

Like MSU, they don’t force a ton of turnovers, only seven to the Spartans’ eight, so far. The secondary has only accounted for two INT’s.

I would expect MSU to try and run the ball as they always do, but I do hope Warner is smart enough to know that at this point he has to pass to set it up. If the play calling and offensive line don’t improve, neither will the results.

Special Teams

Richmond v Maryland Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Over the last two seasons perhaps nothing has been more disappointing than the complete and total collapse of the Michigan State special teams.

This phase of the game basically embodies the issues with this team as a whole. Between missing kicks in overtime, kickoffs going out of bounds, shanked punts and blown coverages, every single thing that could go wrong has.

It was inevitable that it would cost MSU a game this season. You wouldn’t guess it from the score but that’s exactly what happened last week.

With about two minutes remaining in the third quarter, fresh off of O’Connor’s second long touchdown pass to RJ Shelton, MSU had pulled within two points and actually possessed real genuine momentum. The crowd was back into it and you thought “maybe this is it!” and then Mark Snyder’s group struck again.

A poor directional kick from Kevin Cronin and even worse downfield coverage allowed Solomon Vault to take the kick back to the house and squash every bit of positivity in the building. The rest is history.

Terrible news! Maryland has one of the best kick returners in the nation in Will Likely. The cornerback/wideout has six total career return touchdowns (two kick, four punt) and is listed as a starter on this week’s depth chart despite being hurt against Minnesota. If he is good to go and anywhere close to 100% he’s going to cause big headaches.

Maryland’s kicker, Adam Greene, is five-for-seven with a long of 36. Michael Geiger actually made a kick last week and is now four-for-seven with a long of 48. I’ve already alluded to my love for Jake Hartbarger. I’ve mustered all I can on this section.

Bottom Line and Prediction

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports







That last one may statistically be the worst prediction of all time. I should be arrested. In spite of all those terrible guesses, and reason itself, I keep thinking that MSU could win this game.

The run defense in the first three quarters of most games has actually been ok and Maryland doesn’t have the passing attack to gash the Spartans the way NW did. Offensively, if they actually did find something in the second half last week, they could score enough to make up for some inevitable defensive shortcomings.

On the other hand, the fourth quarter run defense has been horrendous — *cough* BYU *cough*— and the offensive players and coaches could just as easily slip back into the terrible decision making that got them into this mess in the first place.

I want them to win, really I do, but until proven otherwise there’s no reason to believe Warner won’t go back to his stubborn play-calling or that the defense will hold up under the relentless pounding of this running attack. Plus, this is under the lights on the road which makes even the lamest of environments seem hostile.

I made a promise last week that if I was wrong — and boy was I — and MSU lost that I would not pick them again this season. I’m a man of my word.

It’s a close game until the final stanza. Maryland’s running game wears down MSU’s front four and seals things up for the Terps.

Maryland 28 — MSU 17