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Michigan State Football: Takeaways from the win over Maryland

The Spartans got back on track on Saturday, beating the Terrapins 40-21 in East Lansing.

Syndication: Lansing State Journal Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

Saturday’s victory over the Maryland Terrapins was a perfect bounce-back game for the Spartans. After the disappointing loss to Purdue the week before, the Spartans really needed to secure a victory against the Terrapins to avoid falling into a losing spiral at the end of the season. With Ohio State and Penn State on the horizon in the last two weeks of the season, the Spartans went out on Saturday and downed the Terrapins 40-21 behind an offensive explosion and a solid performance by the defense.

Quarterback Payton Thorne was dialed in, which was encouraging to see after he looked a bit rattled during the loss to Purdue. Running back Kenneth Walker III’s Heisman campaign continued this week behind 143 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Jayden Reed exploded this week for 119 yards and two touchdowns, and constantly fought for extra yards — namely a big third-down conversion after he stretched out his arm as he was going out of bounds to help put the game away — and had some impressive receptions sprinkled in as well. With fellow wide receiver Jalen Nailor out for the time being, Reed stepping up and being Thorne’s go-to receiver is going to be huge for the Spartans.

Before we dive too far into the final two weeks of the season, though, let’s look at a few takeaways from Saturday’s win over Maryland.

The defense had a bounce-back game, but still has improvements to make

The Boilermakers lit up the Michigan State defense last week. All the issues the Spartans had been dealing with that hadn’t cost them games finally caught up to them, and to make it worse, Charles Brantley went down during the game and may be out for the remainder of the season (unconfirmed by MSU). It was a big blow to the defense and it came at an unfortunate time, as the Spartans’ matchup with C.J. Stroud and the Buckeyes is right around the corner. The defense, especially the secondary, needed to bounce back in the biggest way on Saturday against the Terrapins. And, for the most part — while it was inconsistent — the unit did.

It wasn’t the prettiest game from the defense, but with multiple starters out and the Spartans playing with a lot depth players getting significant snaps, the unit did a solid job of shutting down a pretty talented offense. Maryland is third in the conference in passing yards per game, and the Spartans allowed just over Maryland’s average passing yards per game. The Terrapins also attempted 48 passes on Saturday, the third-most any opponent has attempted against the Spartans. That could have been a recipe for disaster for the defense. Considering Michigan State’s performance a week ago — where it allowed over — 530 passing yards to Purdue, which, obviously, is way above Purdue’s average — as well as the fact the Spartans were pretty depleted in the secondary, the defense did a pretty nice job settling back in and preventing what could’ve been a nightmare of a day for the secondary.

Noah Harvey intercepted a pass from Taulia Tagovailoa in the end zone and had a nice 35-yard return to go with it, which ended one of Maryland’s better drives of the game while the score was still 27-14. Third-down defense was significantly improved this week as well. While the Terrapins aren’t exactly great at third-down conversions (roughly 38 percent coming into Saturday), the Spartans allowed just three conversions on 13 third-down attempts, or about a 23 percent conversion rate. That’s the lowest the Spartans have allowed all season. This game was certainly an improvement for the defense, but with the Buckeyes on the clock, there’s still lots of work to be done before the Spartans roll into Columbus.

Payton Thorne has a bright future

As a redshirt sophomore, Payton Thorne is still a very young quarterback. But, between his brief playing time toward the end of the 2020 season and now, he’s shown some really promising signs of what could be coming in the future. With a Heisman-contending running back, the Spartans haven’t really needed Thorne to make big-time throws or go out and win a game by himself too often, and that’s certainly a good thing. On Saturday, though, Thorne was dealing. He placed quite a few throws perfectly, especially the one he dropped right into Jayden Reed’s hands for a touchdown. I’ve always liked Thorne as a passer (seriously, go look at my takeaways piece from last year’s bloodbath against Ohio State) and I’m really glad he’s making big strides in just his first year as a full-time starter. I’m really eager to see how he progresses over the next few seasons.

These next two games are against two very talented teams, and the Spartans are going to have to have Thorne step up a few times and deliver if the Spartans want to make a run to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship game. I know I’m looking forward to seeing how Thorne responds to the challenge when it comes.

Can lightning strike twice?

Michigan State often find itself as an underdog against Ohio State (frankly, because the Buckeyes are just consistently one of the top teams in the country), and 2015 was no different. Connor Cook was out, the Buckeyes were a top team (ranked No. 3 in College Football Playoff and No. 2 in the AP Poll) looking to defend their national title, and the Spartans were just a few games removed from a deflating loss to the Nebraska Cornhuskers and just had a bounce-back game against the Maryland Terrapins. Coincidentally, that’s exactly where the Spartans find themselves now. Heading into the matchup with the Buckeyes, the Spartans are banged up and bruised, but Mel Tucker and company are hungry for more. Listening to Tucker addressing the team and the way he talked about the Spartans’ victory on Saturday, MSU knows what is still on the table for this season, and I really think the Spartans, even if the teams lose in Columbus, are going to go down swinging as hard as possible;

That’s been the theme this season. Against Miami (FL.), the Spartans needed a stop late. It was hot, the Spartans were getting beat through the air all game, but forced a turnover late and sealed the game. Against Nebraska, Jayden Reed gave new life to the Spartans after tying the game on a late punt return touchdown that forced overtime. Against Michigan, the “Keep Chopping” mentality took full effect and the Spartans secured a 37-33 win after trailing by 16 with five minutes left in the third quarter.

Then, after a massive loss at the hands of the Boilermakers, the Spartans could have just given up, but scraped out a win against the Terrapins. Now, headed into the game against the Buckeyes, most fans and pundits are just hoping Michigan State can keep the game within three possessions — but MSU may put up a tougher fight than that. The Spartans didn’t let the loss to Purdue phase them, and came out and showed they’re still in this title race. Heading into Columbus again, this is just like in 2015 — banged up and bruised, nobody is giving the Spartans a chance against an Ohio State team who looks to be well on its way to another Big Ten Championship and College Football Playoff appearance. We’ll see what happens this Saturday in Columbus, though.

The matchup against the Buckeyes is set for 12 p.m. Eastern Time, and the game will air on ABC. ESPN’s College Gameday will also be in Columbus for the game. It’s the first time the show has been in Columbus for the matchup since 2015.