COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- The party line out of Gossett Team House Nov. 11 was that 12th-ranked Michigan State’s first visit to College Park in 70 years wasn’t really such a big deal.
Next game up. A challenge. An opportunity. Yadda, yadda.
Let’s see if the Terrapins feel that same way when they run out at Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium Nov. 15 at 8 p.m. before what should be a sell-out crowd dressed mostly in black and thinking Sparty’s appearance in town is a pretty special thing.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge, that’s why we’ve accepted it and taken it on,” said quarterback C.J. Brown. “It’s just another game for us.”
But now nine games into their Big Ten tenure, the Terrapins (6-3, 2-2) are jockeying for position in upper levels of the conference’s East Division and for more attractive bowl opportunities.
Michigan State is licking its wounds after a tough 49-37 loss to Ohio State Nov. 8, and guess what? A Maryland upset of the Spartans (7-2, 4-1) would move the Terrapins into second place in the East.
“I feel like every game is just a game,” said emerging star linebacker Yannick Ngakoue. “It’s definitely going to be nice our first time playing at night this season.”
It’s the most even of keels for the Terrapins, reflecting the taciturn demeanor of their head coach, and maybe it’s the best approach to succeed against a juggernaut like Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is bringing to town.
Michigan State is ranked sixth in the nation in scoring offense (44.6 ppg), ninth in total offense (517.6 yards), 10th in total defense (311.4 yards), second in turnover margin (+1.56), and second in time of possession (35:25).
“Michigan State has a very potent offense…very talented,” said Maryland coach Randy Edsall. “Then on defense they’re very active and aggressive, a very physical defense that puts pressure on you and challenges in the run game and the passing game.”
So what gives the Terrapins the idea they’re going to go toe-to-toe with Michigan State, particularly considering what happened against other Big Ten bullies like Ohio State and Wisconsin?
Being the Buckeyes
Well, not only are the Terrapins coming off a game-changing, bowl-eligibility-earning upset at Penn State but they’ve another bye week off to heal up and get ready for a stretch drive that is alive with a plethora of pleasing bowl options. It would be hard to find a Maryland player that didn’t use his Nov. 8 off to watch that Ohio State-Michigan State slugfest, and there are a lot of Terrapins that draw some comparisons with the Buckeyes.
“We watched the entire Ohio State-Michigan State film many times,” said offensive tackle Michael Dunn. “It’s a good tape to watch. Ohio State is a really good offense, and we feel like they’re very similar to our style.”
The tight-lipped Terps think they’ve seen some things they can “exploit” though these Terrapins go into a shell when pressed on the matter. Maryland has rushed for less than 67 yards in three of the last four games and has been below 162 yards passing the last two contests.
And this week, and likely for the rest of the season, they’ll go to battle without their top playmaker, junior wide receiver Stefon Diggs, serving his one-game Big Ten suspension this week (for the pregame scuffle at Penn State) and then his lacerated kidney is likely to keep him out the rest of the season, too.
“Last year we lost two good receivers in Stef and Deon (Long), and I think the key with that is the depth we have,” explained C.J. Brown. “Guys gained experience. They can go out there and play in big-time games and get wins.”
Hybrid running back/receiver Jacquille Veii, who has been mostly MIA in recent weeks after some big performances earlier, will step in for Diggs, and he’s a versatile weapon who can run and receive. Long, long in Diggs’ shadow this year, also has a chance to make more plays and he’s capable though he hasn’t scored a touchdown since Week One. Also keep an eye on true freshman Juwann Winfree, who long term can be special and short term may be ready to show why.
“There’s not too much we’re going to miss,” added Brown. “Obviously Stef is an important part of our offense, but it’s not going to shut us down completely. The offense doesn’t revolve around one person.”
Well, there are those who might beg to differ on that declaration, too. Brown actually leads the team in rushing and passing, and he has accounted for 14 touchdowns, five by land and nine by air. In fact, three more scores and he passes Scott Milanovich as the Terp that has accounted for the most TDs (53) in school history.
Brown sees the similarities to Ohio State’s offense, too, when he looks at his Maryland team. The Buckeyes put 49 points on the board Nov. 8 at East Lansing. “(Ohio State QB) J.T. Barrett played unbelievable,” said Brown. “I know I’m going to have to play great to win this game.”
Where There’s a Will, There’s a Veii
But Sparty can be daunting. “They’ve got a stout front four, the linebackers are really agile and fill the gaps,” said Brown. “They’re going to be stout in the run (defense) so I think we really have to take advantage in the passing game. The passing game is what’s going to lead us to a win. The guys on the outside are going to have to win. Deon, Marcus (Leak), Amba (Etta Tawo), Jacquille are going to have to step up with Stef not in there.”
The speedy Veii could be a secret weapon with the ball in his hands – in a variety of ways – more often. He is averaging 6.6 yards per rush and if you take away tight end Derrick Hayward’s one catch for 27 yards, Veii’s 18.0-yards per catch average leads the team.
“He has meant a lot for us, from being a back-up running back to now being a starting receiver,” said Brown. “The way he has been able to stay even keel and take what has been given him, not get too high or too low…has been huge. Now he has a big opportunity to step up and help this team.”
Long, second on the squad with 35 catches for 389 yards, should also get a heavier work-load. Michigan State will want to cram the box and take away Maryland’s running game, particularly Brown on the read option. That means there will be the chance to make plays down the field, something the Terrapins have only done sporadically so far.
“The biggest thing is being consistent,” said Dunn. “They’re a defense that relies on the big play and really just one big stop from them can ruin an entire drive. So you can’t do well on one play and then do poorly on the next. Against a team like Michigan State you can’t let up on any play. You’ve got to stay consistent throughout the game.”
And For the Defense
Defensively, the Terrapins face a huge challenge, too. The Michigan State offense is on pace to become the most prolific in school history. The Spartans have scored 401 points through nine game, already the fifth most ever for MSU. They’re just two touchdowns away from the 1978 record of 54 TDs. They’re 13th in the country right now with a whopping average of 6.74 yards per play.
“They do a lot of things well,” said Ngakoue.
There’s a lot of concern about what quarterback Connor Cook can do, too. As if stopping a ground attack that averages 246.3 yards (18th in the NCAA) isn’t enough, Cook is a quarterback with a lot of physical tools to make big plays. “He makes good reads and he gets the ball out,” said Ngakoue. “He’s very impressive.”
“He has a very good arm and he’s really accurate throwing the football,” said Edsall of Cook’s winning recipe. “He does a really good job of reading coverages, and knowing where to go with the ball and how to get them into the right plays.”
Cook has 19 touchdown passes this season and has thrown at least one in 11 straight games. He’s eighth in the nation with a passing efficiency rating of 158.3, and he’s been sacked just six times all season, something Ngakoue and friends have noted.
“Maybe the O-line is pretty good or maybe Connor Cook gets the ball off quickly,” said Ngakoue. “I really can’t say. Everybody has a different style of defense that gets to the quarterback so I just feel like our defense is very effective doing that.”
With five sacks at Penn State, the Terrapins now have 18 QB traps in Big Ten play, tied with Wisconsin as the second most in the league. On the year, Maryland has 26 total sacks, 7.5 by senior defensive end Andre Monroe and 5.5 by Ngakoue, who has 12.5 total tackles for loss. His 1.39 TFLs per game ranks second in the Big Ten, and the Spartans have to be scheming to keep him out of the backfield.
In the secondary, Maryland cornerbacks – 5-7 Will Likely and 5-11 Jeremiah Johnson – must contend with one of the Big Ten’s top receivers, 6-3 Tony Lippett, who has 47 catches for a 20.3-yard average and nine touchdowns.
Jeremy Langford powers the Michigan State ground attack, averaging 108.7 yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry. The Spartans use him as battering ram to wear defenses down. They get the ball, keep it a long time and quite often score. Ball game.
To break that cycle, Maryland’s offense has to get back on track. The Terrapins need to turn the tables and hold the pigskin for a while. C.J. Brown knows that better than anyone. He’s not backing down against that staunch Spartan defense.
“We’ve played tough defenses every week,” he said. “I think the big thing for us is to execute on third down, protect the football and not turn it over, but also keep our defense off the field. We can’t have three plays and out. We have to go methodically down the field and score touchdowns.”
Simple enough, huh?
“I’m really excited, this is what we’ve all been looking forward to,” said Dunn, breaking the just-another-game mantra. “It’s a Top 20 team coming in here, sold-out stadium under the lights. Can’t get much better than that.”
Edsall beat that 1-35-1 series record into his team prior to Penn State, and that paid off big. Maryalnd is just 1-4 against Michigan State but the last meeting was in 1950. So what has the coaching staff been preaching the last two weeks?
C.J. Brown spilled the beans, and we won’t consider it a turnover. “I think the biggest thing is to just go out there and don’t hold back. This is a great opportunity against a top-ranked team in the country. You can control your own destiny and be a clear-cut No. 2 in the East Division. Go out there and leave your mark. Night game, prime time, just go out there and leave it all out there.”
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