It’s a new week, but the big story for Michigan State hasn’t changed: The Spartans (2-4, 0-3 Big Ten) are trying to halt a four-game losing streak, the longest stretch without a win for the program in a decade. Next up is Maryland (4-2, 1-2) on the road in prime-time.
Michigan State hasn’t lost five in a row since 1991, when it went 3-8 one season after earning a share of the Big Ten title.
Maryland is in its first season under head coach DJ Durkin, who last season was the defensive coordinator at Michigan. The Terrapins have lost two games in a row after a 4-0 start. Both teams need a win to help reach six wins and bowl eligibility.
Kickoff is scheduled for at 7:30 p.m. ET on the Big Ten Network.
Here are five story lines to watch:
1. How does the quarterback position work this week for Michigan State?
Redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke got his first start last week against Northwestern and looked good for the first quarter-plus. The Wildcats then gave him different looks and applied more pressure, and Lewerke struggled. Fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor replaced him midway through the third quarter and led the offense to 23 points.
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio has said all three quarterbacks – Lewerke, O’Connor and redshirt junior Damion Terry – are again in the mix to start this week, but that he expects Lewerke to play one way or another. Just as was the case last week, the announcement of who starts isn’t expected until game time. Dantonio wants to put the best player out on the field to give his team the best chance to win, but he also has to be mindful of the future. Are those two goals compatible?
2. Can Michigan State get a lead early and then take advantage of it?
The Spartans have scored first in five of their six games and have had double-digit leads in four of them but haven’t shown the ability to expand on those leads and close games out comfortably. They were up 17-7 against Northwestern before the Wildcats scored 26 straight points to take control of the game.
Maryland had success early in the season but has been outscored 69-24 in its last two games. That can shake the confidence of a team trying to build a new culture under a new head coach. If Michigan State can again get the lead, it needs to keep pressing the issue on both sides of the ball.
3. Which team wins on third down?
This will be a staple key simply because Michigan State has been horrible in this area all season.
Opponents are converting 46.7 percent of their third-down attempts against the Spartans, which is second-worst in the Big Ten. That number is 53.7 percent during this four-game losing streak. Michigan State actually forced Northwestern to go three-and-out six times last week, but on but on the nine other occasions when that didn’t happen, the Wildcats scored on eight of the possessions.
The offense is converting just 37.2 percent of its third-down attempts. Same story going the opposite way. There are times when everything clicks on drives, but there have been more times when penalties, dropped passes, missed blocking assignments and other mistakes hinder the offense.
Maryland’s offense is converting 37.8 percent of the time, while the Terrapins’ defense has allowed just 31.6 percent of the third-down attempts against it.
4. Does Maryland get starting quarterback Perry Hills back?
Hills, a fifth-year senior, left Maryland’s 38-14 loss at Penn State two weeks ago with a right shoulder injury and did not play in a 31-10 home loss to Minnesota this past weekend. Freshman Tyrrell Pigrome started in place of Hills against Minnesota. He completed 18 of 37 passes for 161 yards, two interceptions and one touchdown. Pigrome also rushed for 71 yards on 25 carries.
Hills ranks third in the Big Ten in passer efficiency behind Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett and O’Connor, but his 80 pass attempts are by far the fewest of any regular starting quarterback in the conference. Hills initially injured his shoulder in a 30-24 double-overtime win at Central Florida on Sept. 17.
5. Michigan State’s youngsters have to grow up fast.
Okay, they’re all young on a college football team, but some are younger and less experienced than others. Dantonio has played seven freshmen so far this season, the most he has ever had play for him in 10 seasons at Michigan State. There have been moments that show everyone just why it is they are on the field, but also plenty that show everyone that they are freshman.
There is a lot being asked of these players, and now is the time to start seeing some of that improvement.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo