Fear the Turtle?
Michigan State hasn’t had much to worry about with Maryland the past two seasons (since the Terrapins joined the Big Ten). But this season has been anything but conventional for the Spartans (2-4, 0-3 Big Ten). They’ve lost four straight games, three of them by at least 14 points at home.
Maybe it will be good for them to get away from Spartan Stadium. Michigan State has won the last two meetings, 37-15 in College Park, Md., in 2014 and 24-7 last season in East Lansing. Maryland (4-2, 1-2) got off to a 4-0 start under first-year head coach DJ Durkin but has lost consecutive games against Penn State and Minnesota in convincing fashion.
Here’s a closer look at the matchup:
When Michigan State has the ball
Redshirt freshman quarterback Brian Lewerke got his first career start last week against Northwestern and look good through the opening 20 minutes as Michigan State opened up a 17-7 lead. Does he get a second straight start? That is the question that won’t be answered until game time. Lewerke, fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor and redshirt junior Damion Terry are again said to be in the mix to start this week. Head coach Mark Dantonio said this week that Lewerke is expected to play in some capacity, either as the starter or off the bench.
The game got a little fast for Lewerke last week after he produced 110 yards of offense in the first quarter. Northwestern showed him different looks defensively and forced Lewerke into uncomfortable positions, both in the pocket and out. The Spartans run game again was ineffective and unable to relieve any of that pressure from Lewerke. By the time O’Connor replaced him in the third quarter, Michigan State was down 16 points.
Michigan State’s offensive line has a chance to start feeling good about itself. While Maryland is second in the Big Ten with 18 sacks and has allowed just 176.5 yards passing per game, the Terrapins have given up 601 yards rushing in their losses to Penn State and Minnesota.
Advantage: Michigan State
When Maryland has the ball
Just as Michigan State has a quarterback question, so, too, does Maryland. Fifth-year senior Perry Hills has been dealing with a right shoulder injury that forced him to sit out last week against Minnesota. Freshman Tyrrell Pigrome started in his place in a 31-10 loss at home.
Both players are dual-threat quarterbacks, although Hills is certainly more experienced and the better passer at this point in his career. Maryland relies heavily on its run game. Freshman running back Lorenzo Harrison, whom Dantonio has described as a Barry Sanders-type back in terms of his elusiveness, is averaging 8.3 yards per carry. Sophomore Ty Johnson is even better, averaging 9.7 yards a carry. They have split the workload.
Michigan State’s defense has allowed a 100-yard rusher in three straight games, which is bad news given Maryland’s propensity to run the ball. The Spartans got senior middle linebacker Riley Bullough back last week, but because they have been playing more freshmen – both true and redshirt – there have been holes left in the defense that have been exploited for big plays. The Spartans need to close those holes.
Advantage: Michigan State
A lot depends on the health of Maryland senior William Likely. The senior defensive back/wide receiver/kick returner left the game against Minnesota with a knee injury. There’s a good reason why Likely plays as much as he does. He is averaging 27.4 yards on kickoff returns, with a long of 64 yards. Michigan State’s kickoff coverage was exposed last week on a 95-yard return for a touchdown by Northwestern’s Solomon Vault that halted the Spartans’ comeback attempt.
Michigan State has gotten little from its return game. Punter Jake Hartbarger has had a solid season, but the Spartans have consistently lost the hidden yards category and field-position battle each week during the losing streak.
Dantonio has been preaching that his team needs to get back to its fundamentals, foundation and roots to break the losing streak. But with that philosophy, has Michigan State become too predictable? There are a lot of growing pains being felt as seven freshmen have seen the field. That’s the most freshmen to play in any of Dantonio’s 10 seasons. They’re not just playing backup roles, either, making the job of the coaches more challenging.
Durkin has the challenge of regrouping a team that was feeling really good when it was 4-0 but has to be doubting itself some after losing by a combined score of 69-24 in the last two games. The home crowd with a night-time atmosphere should help emotionally, but as Michigan State discovered last week, emotion only takes you so far.
Advantage: Michigan State
This will be Michigan State’s third prime-time game on the road this season. The Spartans won at Notre Dame but lost in overtime at Indiana. There is a lot of frustration building up in the Michigan State camp. This program isn’t used to losing, let alone four straight losses. Games that a month ago would have been considered near-automatic W’s – like this one – are no longer the case. Nothing will come easy to this team, not with so many underclassmen playing primary roles. Both teams need a win as they seek to become bowl eligible. Michigan State is the more desperate team. Will it play like it?
Kevin Goheen’s prediction: Michigan State 27, Maryland 20
Luke Srodulski’s prediction: Maryland 33, Michigan State 21
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo
Luke Srodulski covers Michigan State recruiting for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @lsrodulski