COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- In some ways the Oct. 22 Big Ten clash between Maryland and Michigan State is the most unpredictable and exciting kind of college football game.
Two teams looking for their identity, each desperate for a victory, hook up in a contest that could be a turning point for either program. Coming off a 54-40 loss to Northwestern, Michigan State (2-4, 0-3) has lost four games in a row for the first time ever in coach Mark D’Antonio’s 10-year tenure.
Maryland, after that fast 4-0 start, has fallen twice now, lopsided losses to Penn State and Minnesota that have everyone wondering which is the real Terrapins team this year? The answer may loom Oct. 22 at 7:30 on Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium.
“We are a program that embraces challenge and we’ve got a great one ahead of us,” said Maryland coach DJ Durkin. “We’re coming off two games that didn’t go the way we wanted them to, and we’ve really got to bounce back. You find out what you’re made of. This is what college football is all about, bouncing back and being resilient.”
Maryland (4-2, 1-2) hasn’t seemed capable of recapturing the energy that marked the beginning of the season under Durkin. Of course, the loss of quarterback Perry Hills in the Penn State game has loomed large in the offense’s crashing back to earth. The Terrapins were averaging 43.2 points and 300 yards rushing per game through the first four contests, albeit not the same level of opponent they’ve faced the past two weeks.
The last two games, Maryland has amassed just 24 total points and back-to-back season lows of 170 and then 130 rushing yards. Freshman quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome, often running for his life had over half those yards (71) in the last game, and coaches and teammates have repeatedly said you can’t pinpoint “Piggy” as the culprit of the offensive fall-off.
But the passing offense hasn’t been able to make plays downfield as more defenders have crept into the box with Pigrome behind center. He’s a runner that can do things Hills can’t, but without the threat of stretching the field through the air, Maryland’s high-powered offense has sputtered, running and passing.
So come this week and suddenly the Terrapins aren’t even releasing an updated depth chart in advance of the Oct. 22 game, a first this season. There’s the thought that Hills may be inching back toward being ready to start and of course, Durkin will play those cards close to his chest as the hopes Hills’ shoulder is healed.
Then there’s also the matter of Will Likely, the senior big-play specialist who is seemingly more and more unlikely to play as little information leaks about his knee injury suffered Oct. 15. That’s a double-hit for the Terrapins who lose him as a great cover corner in the slot and as a potential game-breaker on special teams.
Durkin broached the topic of both key seniors at this weekly Tuesday press conference at Tyser Tower in Maryland Stadium, before the question was even asked. “We’re determining the best course of action right now before this weekend. We don’t have a definitive status on those guys…We’ll have updates later in the week.”
Reading between the lines, Michigan State, you need to keep preparing as if both will play even though they may not.
Terrapin turnabout is fair play, especially since the Spartans have played three quarterbacks this year and started two different ones, redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke and senior Tyler O’Connor. Lewerke got the start last week and had the Spartans up 14-0 on Northwestern before the roof caved in.
O’Connor, who finished with 281 yards passing and three touchdowns came in, but couldn’t save the day. On the season, though, O’Connor has graded out as the second most efficient quarterback in the Big Ten (behind only Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett) and he has a 61.1 completion percentage and 11 touchdown passes. (Hills, by the way, is rated third, completing 62.5 percent, with six touchdowns and just two interceptions.)
O’Connor’s numbers, though, have not translated to wins, and his benching points to the desperation of Sparty these days as D’Antonio looks at a possible end to his personal streak of 10 straight bowl appearances.
And speaking of bowls, which those four straight wins had Maryland fans thinking about and had Citrus Bowl officials scouting, well, the road to six victories got a lot more difficult with the losses to Penn State and Michigan.
Looking ahead on the schedule, Indiana on the road looks a lot tougher than advertised in the preseason. That one is followed by No. 3 Michigan on the road, No. 2 Ohio State at home, No. 8 Nebraska on the road, and then the next game Maryland will be favored in, the finale Nov. 26 against Rutgers.
Night Time Could Be The Right Time
So how do the Terrapins fix things?
“The biggest thing coming into this game is we need to bring energy to the game, get back to the basics,” said senior wide receiver Levern Jacobs, coming off one of his best games ever. “We need to be better in the run. We need to be better in the pass. Whatever happens in the game we need to be more poised, even if we get down in the game, or if we’re up, we just need to keep our composure. And bring a good tempo like our offense is meant to be. We’re a tempo offense and we’ll bring a hurry-up offense and get them off-balance.”
The Terrapins, living up to their mascot’s mode, slowed to a crawl last week, nine-penalties for 75 yards often made the offense walk to the line after a march-off, and more damagingly, taking away a couple of huge offensive plays in the first half when it was anybody’s game.
The consensus seemed that sort of loss of concentration was indicative of the drop-off in focus and the intensity that had been an early-season trademark. “It felt a bit flat (against Minnesota),” said senior offensive tackle Michael Dunn. “I can’t really pin it down, but I know it’s not going to happen again.”
Jacobs, who has been lauded for his blocking – he had the key hit to spring Ty Johnson on the 66-yard screen pass score at Penn State – caught a career-high 10 passes for 82 yards against Minnesota, one of a handful of stand-out performances. Jacobs said it was a case of the Terps taking what the defense gave them, more than any shift in strategy.
“Other teams let us run the ball on the them so that’s what they did,” said Jacobs. “Minnesota let us throw the ball so that’s what we did. It’s all about adjustments and not forcing anything.”
But now Maryland wants to force a change, starting fast like in the first games of the season. All of the Terrapins talking Tuesday talked about playing a “Black Out” game (everyone wearing black) at night in a crowded, rowdy Maryland Stadium. “The entire atmosphere is going to be incredible, a night game at home,” said Dunn. “I’m sure the fans are coming out in full strength.”
Dunn, heading into his offense-high 43rd start Oct. 22, recalled his first night game at home was two years ago against Michigan State, although a loss, a memorable evening. “We started off pretty strong that game, kind of faded away at the end,” he said of the 37-15 setback. “The biggest thing I remember is the atmosphere, the first Black Out I was a part of. It’s a really cool environment to play in front of. There’s an ‘under-the-lights’ feel where there’s a little bit of an extra boost.”
“Everyone’s going to be excited,” said Braglio. “Playing night game is always fun, being on national TV, the atmosphere, the team is fired up about it.”
But as injuries have whittled away what little depth this mostly-minimal-margin-for-error Maryland team had, the going has gotten tougher. To a man, though, Maryland wouldn’t blame injuries for the Minnesota mauling, though as key veteran players keep falling – safety Denzel Conyers, running back Trey Edmunds, quarterback Perry Hills, cornerback Will Likely – it would be a plausible excuse.
“Injuries are a part of the game and it’s got to be next man up,” said Braglio. Obviously losing Will is tough, but the next man has to step up. We trust our coaches, our schemes and our teammates, and (injuries) are just the way the game goes. It’s a team thing. We’re very close, really tightknit on defense, so when somebody (gets hurt), we huddle up and we all have to stay together.”
Hills’ possible return could be Maryland’s best hope for another tangible boost, and he can hopefully put a little pizzazz back in the passing game. “You always miss a player like Perry,” said Dunn. “Perry’s a gritty kid. He’s really tough. You always know he’ll lay it on the line for you. But Piggy, some of the stuff that he did and that he can do, is pretty incredible. We have a lot of confidence in Piggy. That’s why he was the guy that came in.”
Jacobs sees Pigrome making strides. “Just in being more of a vocal leader. ‘Pig’ has all the tools to be the guy. Whoever they put out there, we just need to adjust. I think the team has done a great job of adjusting.”
Whoever the Maryland quarterback is Oct. 22, the good news is Michigan State has a conference low six sacks. Last week, they had one sack and just three hurries against Northwestern. The Terrapins, meanwhile, have allowed a Big Ten high 19 sacks, another offensive trend Dunn & Co., want to reverse.
“Just some technique issues and some footwork problems people are having, communication problems,” said Dunn of the offensive line problems of late. “We just have to keep working on the communication between each other and we keep getting better.”
While the offense has garnered most of the attention for their ills, the defense has been gashed for exactly 600 yards on the ground the last two weeks, numbers that put observers in mind of last season. And that’s not a good thing.
The good news is that Michigan State is the Big Ten’s worst running offense, just 136.2 yards per game and only 3.8 per carry. The bad news is that such numbers are not the Spartans’ history, nor is their abysmal record to date.
“We’ve got to get back to the basics,” said Braglio. “Techniques and fundamentals are one of the biggest parts of football. As a D-lineman, it’s hands and shedding blockers and fitting the right gaps. It’s going to be tough. They’re big guys up front and that’s what Michigan State does – run the football.”
L.J. Scott is a 6-1, 230-pound tailback averaging 56 yards a game and with nearly twice as many carries as any other Spartan. And when 6-0, 253-pound Preston Line is in at fullback, Scott isn’t even their biggest back. It’s basic Big Ten football.
“We’re ready,” said Braglio. “We love the challenge.”
There’s a feeling Michigan State can still get this thing turned around, though hopefully not this week. “They’re still a really good team,” said Dunn. “They still have a lot of talent. They’re still a solid Big Ten defense. I’m not paying too much attention to the record. We respect them.”
Defensive end Malik McDowell is a player that caught Dunn’s eye on defense. He’s a 6-6, 276-pound junior, but the Spartans just haven’t made big plays whether you want to point to injured linebackers or heavy losses to graduation. Michigan State is 117th in the nation in sacks, and 115th in tackles for loss. Opponents are converting 46 percent of their third downs.
Durkin didn’t talk about Michigan State like a 2-4 team, but he wouldn’t. He was stressing positives about his Terrapins this week, too. Besides Jacobs, a couple of first-time starters on the defensive line had big games against Minnesota. Senior nose tackle “Zooby” Ukandu, a former walk-on, had a career-high 12 tackles, an incredible number for a nose tackle.
“Usually those guys aren’t in on that many plays,” said Durkin. “His growth has been tremendous. We just need more guys to consistently play at that level. It’s good that we can use Ukandu as an example of what we want from our guys.”
Chandler Burkett, starting at Buck end, had four tackles, earning raves for his sideline-to-sideline hustle.
True freshmen Pigrome, guard Terrance Davis and cornerback Tino Ellis all started Oct. 15, the first time since Nov. 24, 2012, three freshmen had started (Stephon Diggs, Mike Madaras, Shawn Petty at North Carolina).
Another true freshman, Lorenzo Harrison ranks fifth among all true frosh with his 66.2 yards rushing per game. At this pace, he’ll break Lamont Jordan’s 1997 school freshman record of 689 yards.
“He has been tremendous,” said Durkin. “Numbers don’t even tell the story about the level of effort and competitiveness that he has been playing with. When you start to describe how I want our program to be, he checks off all the boxes. He plays really hard. His effort is unbelievable. He’s blocking punts, he’s blocking for guys down the field. I can’t say enough about him.”