COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Although Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown has spent the majority of his 24 years living in Cranberry Township, Pa., including his entire high school career at Seneca Valley Senior (Harmony, Pa.), his family’s roots reside in Troy, Mich. And, if you want to narrow it down to college football allegiances, those roots are decidedly green and white, rather than blue and maize -- even though Troy is much closer to Ann Arbor, Mich., than it is to East Lansing, Mich.
See, Brown’s father, Clark, played quarterback for Michigan State from 1983-84, while his sister, Katie, is currently enrolled at the university. Naturally, that makes the family firm Michigan State backers, which was never really an issue considering the Spartans resided in the Big Ten and hadn’t played C.J. Brown’s Terrapins, formerly of the ACC, since 1990 (for the record, MSU is 3-0 all-time versus Maryland). This week, though, the now-Big Ten Terps will host Michigan State for an 8 p.m. bout in College Park, Md.
On Nov. 11, the 6-foot-3, 218-pound Brown swatted away any interfamily rooting-dilemma inquiries like cornerback Will Likely swatting down a deep ball, but the senior gunslinger still had some fun with the questions.
“No [smack talk],” said a chucking Brown, who mentioned that he’d have around 30 family and friends from Michigan coming down for the game. “She [my sister] was freezing up there for the game in East Lansing [against Ohio State last week], and she’s just enjoying her time up there, enjoying the college game-day experience. My parents went up and visited her, but I was just around here [last week].
“And [my dad], he’s just worried about tickets right now. That’s been the big discussion. He’s just worried about getting enough tickets and getting everyone sitting together. There hasn’t been too much talk other than taking care of business, believe in yourself, believe in your team and go out there and try to get that win.”
The latter is going to be one tall task considering Michigan State is 7-2 and ranks in the top 10 nationally in both total offense and total defense. The Spartans did fall to Ohio State last week, but make no mistake, MSU’s defense, especially, is much more formidable than it showed during its 49-37 defeat Nov. 8.
The Spartans, who employ a cover-4 scheme under eighth-year coordinator Pat Narduzzi, allow just 311.4 yards per game, which is 10th best in the FBS. They hold opposing running games to 114.6 yards per (14th in the FBS), while passing attacks generate only 197 yards per (23rd in the FBS). Although Michigan State is allowing 23.4 points per game, the defense has created 24 turnovers and has a plus-14 ratio, which ranks among the best in college football.
“[Michigan State is] coming off a tough loss, obviously playing a very good Ohio State team,” Brown said. “[Their defense is] very physical, but at the same time they play a lot of people in the box, and they’re going to try and take the running game away. We understand that. We’re going to have to throw the ball well to win. Guys on the outside, the receivers, are going to have to play well; I’m going to have to play well; and the O-line is going to have to play well. It’s going to take a joint effort.”
Michigan State’s front seven, in particular, is quite formidable. The Spartans bring plenty of pressure up the middle with their linebackers, while the four down linemen have been known to generate a pass rush all on their own. The group has also stepped up its run defense as the season has moved along, holding opposing back to 3.8 yards per carry.
“They’re strong up front; they’re bull-rushers. They come and put pressure on you,” Terps head coach Randy Esall said. “They’ll play some straight man, some zone pressures. They have a good scheme for who they are, and they do a good job defensively. They’re well coached, and they have good players … They play hard and get after it.”
Currently MSU ranks 10th nationally with an eye-popping 30 sacks, led by defensive end Shilique Calhoun’s 6.5 quarterback takedowns, outside linebacker Ed Davis’ six, MIKE linebacker Taiwan Jones’ four, and the aptly named Marcus Rush’s 3.5.
That’s a potential problem for a Maryland offensive line that’s surrendered 25 sacks this year, putting the unit among the bottom 25 in protecting their triggerman.
“Really, [the Spartans] love to bring those double MIKEs, cross-dog or B-gap plugs, so you have to prepare for it, and you have to make sure you pick up all those guys,” Terps tackle Michael Dunn said. “All the guys [Terps’ offensive linemen] have been working hard, and we’ve been practicing against it a bunch.
“And, really, those [Michigan State] guys are good players and they love to fill the gap hard, and if you’re not paying attention or focused on the play, you may end up on the ground. I like watching [the Spartans] on film; they’re a good team, but we’ve got to be prepared.”
Dunn said MSU’s front seven is pretty similar to Ohio State’s, if not in terms of scheme than in overall effectiveness. He said both the Buckeyes -- which defeated Maryland 52-24 back on Oct. 4 -- and the Spartans feature burly, stout linemen and linebackers, plus a pair of elite pass-rushing ends that can wreck havoc. Dunn compared Michigan State’s Calhoun to Ohio State’s Joey Bosa, who lived in the Terps’ backfield earlier this fall.
“We didn’t have our best game against Ohio State, so this [Michigan State game] is kind of like a redemption game almost,” Dunn said. “But, you know, this is probably the best defense we’re going to face all year, so if we can have a good game, as we’re expecting, then it would show the progress we’ve made as a unit.”
The Maryland tackle mentioned that his linemates have now had two weeks to prepare for MSU, and worked extensively on communication during the bye week. He said it’s imperative all five trenchmen get off the ball well and execute their assignments, because “if one guy doesn’t, the play goes for no yards.”
“We’re doing a good job so far, and hopefully we can keep that up in practice and in the game [Nov. 15],” Dunn said. “I think we are up for the challenge. … Obviously we’re really excited for this game; the atmosphere is going to be great. So, yeah, I think we’re going to be up for the challenge.”
While the Spartans have excelled at getting to the quarterback and stuffing opposing running games, their defensive backs have been suspect, despite allowing less than 200 passing yards per game. Cornerback Darian Hicks was taken to task last week, while the safeties have had problems defending deep during several games this year.
“The passing game is going to be huge for us, with the receivers on the outside, the tight ends on the inside… and we’re going to have to take advantage of deep throws and things like that,” C.J. Brown said. “It’s going to be a lot of man-to-man coverage, a lot of matchups that we can exploit, and we’re looking forward to that.”
Theoretically that’s how Maryland can stay in this game, but can Brown and Co. really take advantage of a somewhat leaky secondary? Brown, who doesn’t possess the strongest arm out there, has struggled some this year, completing just 53.8 percent of his throws for nine touchdowns and six interceptions. And now his No. 1 target, receiver Stefon Diggs, is likely out for the season with a lacerated kidney.
“Stefon’s a great player, but we have some great weapons who will be filling in,” Dunn said. “Jacquille [Veii] has been working hard. Marcus Leak, Deon [Long], Amaba Etta-Tawo -- all these guys have been working hard. It’s hard to lose such a great player in Stefon, but all the people filling in are just as capable of making plays.”
Brown concurred with his blindside blocker, adding that the Terps’ offense won’t change much with Diggs out. The quarterback said he and receiver Jacquille Veii, who will replace Diggs in the lineup, worked extensively on timing; communication; and developing chemistry during the bye week, and the two are “getting very comfortable.”
“I feel bad for [Diggs]… He’s a very gifted guy… But, at the same time, we have other guys who need to step up. We’ve been in this situation before,” Brown said. “When a guy can’t go out there and play, for whatever reason, other guys have to step up. That’s the beauty of having depth, having guys who have played before and have had experience.”
The fact is, Brown said, Maryland can’t worry about who isn’t on the field. The Terps are sitting at 6-3, and have to find a way to continue improving, regardless of the circumstances or the competition.
And what a foe they're pitted against Nov. 15 in College Park.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge,” Brown said of his father’s alma mater. “It’s been awhile since we’ve had a night game at home. It’s a blackout in Byrd… and it’s going to be a really special environment. Blackout uniforms, night game, primetime… Guys are really looking forward to it.”
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