Well, Week 3 was one to forget. The Washington Huskies came into Spartan Stadium and unleashed an unprecedented level of offensive destruction against the MSU defense. We knew that it could be ugly, given that Kalen DeBoer’s squad is what you’d build if you were custom making a team to take advantage of MSU’s defects. Couple that with the comical level of turmoil in East Lansing in the week leading up to kickoff, and you get that 41-7 beatdown.
How do the Spartans respond, and how can they respond?
Maryland is not Washington. Taulia Tagovailoa is not Michael Penix. Thank goodness for small favors, but this is not going to be a situation we saw against Richmond or Central Michigan. The Terrapins are talented, pack a punch, and are historically good in the month of September.
Let’s take a look under the shell.
Maryland is led by Mike Locksley, who has carved out a place as the face of DMV football. He’s a DC native who played at Towson, has had multiple stints at Maryland as an assistant, serving as the interim head coach after the firing of Randy Edsall in 2015. After picking up the pieces of Edsall’s disastrous tenure in College Park, Locksley went to Tuscaloosa to join Nick Saban’s Alabama staff. As Alabama’s offensive coordinator, Locksley won the Broyles Award in 2018, coaching a unit that included Jalen Hurts, DeVonta Smith, Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy, and Damien Harris at the skill positions.
After Maryland’s disastrous 2018 season, in which former coach DJ Durkin was fired after offensive lineman Jordan McNair died of heatstroke during a May workout, Locksley was called back to the DMV to lead the Terps. Maryland has been trending upward throughout Locksley’s tenure, going 3-9 in 2019, 2-3 in the Covid shortened 2020 season, then 7-6 in 2021, and 8-5 in 2022.
Steady progress and offensive competence.
This year’s Terrapins offense is led by a pair of high profile assistants, Josh Gattis and Kevin Sumlin. Gattis is familiar to the Big Ten, as he won the Broyles Award in 2021 as Jim Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator at Michigan. After an underwhelming season under Mario Cristobal at Miami, Gattis reunited with his former Alabama colleague Locksley in College Park. Kevin Sumlin is best known for his time as Texas A&M’s head coach, unleashing the phenomenon that was Johnny Manziel, but he’s been a figure in football since the 90’s, when he was an assistant for Joe Tiller at Purdue implementing a high flying spread attack.
On defense, the Terps are led by second year coordinator Brian Williams. Williams has been on Locksley’s staff since he took over, and he coaches the defensive line. Williams’ unit was solidly middling in the Big Ten in 2022 after being a weak point prior.
For the fourth year in a row, Maryland is quarterbacked by Taulia Tagovailoa. Finally emerging from the shadow of being “Baby Tua,” Tagovailoa is Maryland’s all time leader in virtually every QB stat, both for single seasons and over his career. Initially on Alabama’s roster behind his older brother, Tagovailoa transferred to Maryland to follow Locksley after seeing limited action for the Crimson Tide.
Against MSU, Tagovailoa is 1-1, winning last year’s game in College Park with a solid stat line, racking up 314 passing yards and a touchdown. While those of us who were in the stadium last week are still having nightmares about what Michael Penix did to the Spartan defense, seeing another established Power 5 quarterback walking through the tunnel is the last thing we need, but Tagovailoa’s game is a pretty sharp contrast to Penix’s. While Penix is an elite pocket passer with an extremely talented corps of receivers, Tagovailoa is dynamic, extending the pocket with his legs, but not looking to run the ball. After the first three games with the new offensive staff, his numbers are good, highlighted by last week’s 342 yard showing against Virginia, where the Terps scored 42 unanswered points.
After losing mega talented receivers Dontay Demus and Rakim Jarrett, Maryland’s done a good job regrouping, with sixth year senior Jeshaun Jones leading the way. He leads the team in yardage, and has snagged a pair of touchdowns in the first three games of the season. Just behind Jones in yardage is Corey Dyches. Dyches is nominally a tight end, but is a major player in the passing game. Kaden Prather and Tai Felton are the other receivers who impact the game, with Felton just shy of 100 yards receiving on the season at this point.
In the running game, sophomore Roman Hemby is the main threat. Hemby, a highly touted Baltimore native, leads the Terps in rushing and it isn’t particularly close at this point in the season. Hemby scored twice in the win against Virginia, and is a pass catching threat out of the backfield, tallying 217 all purpose yards against Charlotte. Hemby dominates the carries for Maryland, but Colby McDonald also sees a healthy number of touches, and has scored in Spartan Stadium in 2021.
Since hiring the offensive minded Locksley, Maryland has had a difficult time getting traction on the defensive side of the ball. Brian Williams’ first defensive unit in 2022 was an improvement, but many pieces of that team are gone. Through the first three games of 2023, Maryland’s defense seems serviceable.
Their main piece is linebacker Jaishawn Barham, who exploded for 2 sacks against Charlotte in Week 2. The sophomore started 12 games in 2022, ending the season with 4 sacks and 58 tackles. #1 will be a disruptive force as Noah Kim tries to reclaim some of his form from the first two games of the season.
At DB, Tarheeb Still picked off 2 Virginia passes, playing a key role in keeping the Cavaliers from finding any traction as Maryland came back from an early deficit. Defensive lineman Donnell Brown has had an interception in consecutive games, with one each against Charlotte and Virginia. The transfer from St Francis was an FCS All American, and he seems to fit right in with a Big Ten defense.
How Worried Should We Be?
Pretty worried. Not Washington levels of worry, but this a much tougher test than we saw from Richmond or Central Michigan. Maryland has an experienced quarterback, a real playmaker in Roman Hemby, and a defense that’s trending upward. As a Big Ten team, Maryland has tended to start hot and run out of gas some time in October. Unfortunately, the scheduling gods have given MSU the Terps in September.
This game is a pivot point for Michigan State football. We’ll know a lot more about this program at about 7:30 on Saturday night.