by 89 Chemistry
To put things briefly, either team could win this game—by anything from one to 20 points.
Both teams are poor by B1G standards. Most analyses project the Terrapins (4-2, 1-2 B1G) to win—but most analyses do not account for changes as the season unfolds. Nor do they account for how teams actually do on the road versus at home. UMD seems to have gotten worse and worse in the past two weeks, while MSU may or may not have leveled off in its overall mediocrity. And while UMD is slightly better at home, MSU’s defense alone is two touchdowns per game better on the road than at home.
How good Maryland will be Saturday night will mostly depend on the health of All-American returner/“nickel back” Will Likely [jersey #4] and quarterback Perry Hills [#11]. Likely is UMD’s leader as Kirk Cousins was once MSU’s leader and is a two-time All-B1G cornerback. Hills might be the worst QB the Spartans have faced since playing Furman, but he is better than true freshman Tyrrell Pigrome [#3], and has some chance of keeping MSU honest against UMD’s rush-oriented attack.
On that attack: The QBs run well; the lead backs average nine yards per carry; and they sometimes use a stout guy named Kenneth Goins.
With Likely, UMD employs a 4-2-5 defense—which intrinsically relies on confusing offensive players. Without Likely, it will probably run a base 4-3. The defense bends without breaking and frequently sacks quarterbacks.
Assuming Likely and Hills play, the median projection is UMD 28, MSU 26.
EXPANDED REMARKS AND ADDITIONAL DETAILS
Once again, MSU faces a coach that is unhappy with his team. “Obviously a very sloppy performance,” DJ Durkin said after a 31-10 home loss to Minnesota (1-2 B1G). “I think we killed ourselves with penalties and turnovers… We didn’t play with the same sense of urgency and grit that we’ve played with for most of the season. … There’s plenty of blame to go around, including coaching. … We need to swing the field better when we’re on special teams. It’s like every other return there’s a breakdown … We have to learn how to bounce back and have some toughness about us to push through.” Both UMD and UMN were missing its starting QBs—invoking run tactics that succeeded for the Gophers, but not Pigrome and the Terps. “They were hugging the line of scrimmage and holding the box, daring us to throw with Piggy,” Durkin said. “He can execute throwing down the field. We have to do a better job of protecting him.” In contrast—and of possible inspiration the Spartans—UMN ran the ball 48 times. “We have to be sound in our run gaps and be where we’re supposed to be when we need to be there,” said Jermaine Carter—one of the B1G’s better LBs (he had 14 TFLs last year).
Pigrome has played in every game and had his first start last week. He is almost as likely to run as to throw, averaging ~5 yards per non-sack rush [nsr]. He averages only 3.9 y/throw [the Report considers 7.5 y/t average], but has only a 6.5% sacked rate and a 3.4% INT rate. Hills splits about 1:2 rush:pass; he averages ~6 y/nsr and 5.9 y/t and only a 2.5% INT rate. But Hills—the B1G’s third most-efficient passer—is sacked 15% of the time he tries to pass. Pigrome either passed or carried 62 times last week (including nearly 20 improvised runs) and, if Hills cannot play, seems to have Durkin’s trust: “There’s other guys I’m worried about bouncing back, he’s not one of them.”
In comparison, O’Connor averages 4.8 y/nsr and 7.3 y/t. His sack rate is 8%, and his INT rate is 7.4%. Lewerke averages only 4.9 y/t. But he has averaged ~9 y/nsr while keeping sack and INT rates down to 4% and 4.3%, respectively.
Despite this, the Report considers O’Connor MSU’s best QB for now. Someone might object that Lewerke was not the same after taking a safety vs. NU. But in the 10 offensive minutes before that, MSU’s offense gained 10 points and 131 yards. With O’Connor in for MSU’s final eight minutes of possession, MSU gained 23 points and 318 yards. In order to win this game, O’Connor—the first Spartan to throw two 86-yard passes since Steve Juday over 50 years ago—needs to be quarterbacking for at least some of it. But it would not be surprising to see MSU use both on Saturday, to good effect.
And to be fair, one cannot praise the B1G’s second-most efficient QB without noting the bright light that wide receiver RJ Shelton is this season. Those 86-yard TD passes—the longest passes among B1G teams—helped to place Shelton third in the B1G in receiving yards/game  and all-purpose y/g . In 2016 conference games, he has both of the two largest receiving-yard tallies [190, 141] and the largest all-purpose tallies [260 y]. The 190 receiving yards vs. NU was the most by a Spartan since early 2008 [Mark Dell, 205 vs. Cal].
MSU’s coaches had another trial of explanations after the NU loss. LJ Scott had a promising start in the run game. But he “didn’t see a whole lot of action in the second half as it became a little more of a passing game,” explained Offensive coordinator Dave Warner. “Gerald [Holmes] has served as our best pass pro guy and has locked in his assignments very well, so that’s pretty much what happened.” A depleted offensive line puts more pressure on backs to block well, in the Report’s view. A great O-line might be able to cover a hot running back’s shortcomings on pass plays. In 2016, the hot running back must be a blocking back—which, it now seems, hobbles MSU’s running game if Holmes is having an off day toting the rock.
After a day when MSU gave up more points than in any game since 2003, defensive coordinator Mike Tressel had several items to address. He thinks the impact of missed tackles is largely a consequence of MSU’s dearth of gang tackling so far this year—reiterating the point that MSU practices tackling a lot between games. (The Report ventures that the implied lack of defenders’ flow to the ball is, in turn, a consequence of inexperienced players simply not recognizing the ball’s position fast enough—and/or not shedding blockers promptly.) When asked why the D seems okay before halftime and falters afterward, he said, “Really what I think it is right now is when we give up a big play or we give up a big drive, we don’t respond very well. If you go and look at how people are attacking us in the second half, it’s not like it’s a whole different offensive game plan…” And on coverage problems on deeper throws, he offered an explanation with a blunt conclusion: ““[I]t’s frustrating when you know something that’s coming and you don’t make the play.” (Safety Demetrious Cox“told me after the game his legs are ailing and in need of treatment,” Chris Solari of the Detroit Free Press revealed this week. The safety probably had the most glaring coverage breakdowns in the NU game.)
Brian Lewerke got to speak after the game, too. “I would probably give myself a B+,” he said. “I think I did pretty well, but there were obvious mistakes that still need to be corrected. I would probably stay in the pocket more. I skipped too much.” After reviewing game footage, Dantonio said that the “game got a little fast for Lewerke after the first quarter”. In fact, quarterbacks coach Brad Salem later laid responsibility for the safety on Lewerke: “It’s knowing progression. He had a free-access hitch to the field, so the ball would’ve been out quicker. You know when you’re in five-man protection, you gotta get the ball out.”
Dantonio—who reserved judgment right after the game—was frank about film review on Sunday night. “We were outplayed, out-toughed, out-coached,” he said. Those Usual Suspects that would not describe the entire past month the same way are few to none.
On Tuesday, Dantonio told the press that the players’ attitudes remain strong and positive. A cascade of interesting remarks was drawn from Dantonio—all beginning with a reporter’s question that asked if he was “concerned about [MSU] becoming, in certain cases, predictable”.
“I think it’s hyperbole,” Dantonio replied. “There are always wrinkles, as I said last week. … But you just can’t change and overhaul something that you’ve done, especially if you’ve been good at it. … The problem right now is sometimes our players aren’t playing fast. I watched [freshman defensive end] Josh King, who is going to be a phenomenal player. He…comes off the edge, before he gets hit on a wham block, a block coming back from the tight end, he fixes his helmet in the middle of a play. Well, you can’t do that. That’s just a very small thing. But you have to be able to know what you’re doing, play fast, and execute whatever it is…at a rapid rate and aggressively. That’s what we need to concentrate on and be fundamentally sound. That’s what wins football games, fundamentals.” Dantonio went on to imply that defensive problems fall into several categories, but pointed out a positive obscured by the final score. “We had six [defensive] three-and-outs on Saturday. … If you get more than five, you’re doing pretty well because it doesn’t happen all the time. So we did have a lot of three-and-outs. But when we didn’t, things sort of snowballed a little bit.”
Dantonio said some things about Maryland, too. “From a defensive perspective, I think you see a lot of what Coach Durkin did at [Michigan]. You see a lot of press coverage, a lot of different pressures with middle-of-the-field safety. They are going to play a variety of different coverages, a little quarters, they have an extensive nickel package. I think he’s got his guys playing hard. I think their wide receivers are talented.” Defensive end Jesse Aniebonam [#41] has 5.5 sacks in six games (second in the B1G). The Terps seem good at minimizing pass yardage, but are even worse at seizing turnovers—especially INTs—than the Spartans are. And the receivers are talented—relative to the intrinsic talent of most of the Terrapins. Levern Jacobs [#8] had ten catches last week, and DJ Moore [#1] had 147 receiving yards against Florida International. According to Ryan Connors of the UMD blog Testudo Times, “For [highly-regarded O Coordinator] Walt Bell’s offense to work, the team needs wideouts to catch the ball close to the line of scrimmage and get yards after the catch.” That happened only in the fourth quarter last weekend—and in that quarter, the Terps scored their only points of the game  and racked up 200 yards (A cautionary point for fans of a defense that wilts late in games and no longer renders offenses one-dimensional.)
The Terps’ longest reception belongs to running back Ty Johnson [#6]—a 66-yard TD vs. Penn State. He has theB1G’s longest rushing play in 2016; the 76-yard TD was part of his 204 yards on seven carries in UMD’s 50-7 win over Purdue. He, the quarterback(s), and Lorenzo Harrison [#23] should account for almost 80% of the rushes of a team that tends to rush on 60-70% of its plays. “The freshman [Harrison] wasn’t a super-ballyhooed recruit, but he scored touchdowns in his first four games and is still Maryland’s leading rusher,” says Testudo Times’ Thomas Kendziora. “He’s a shifty, elusive back, while Johnson is a speedster who always looks like he’s on the brink of breaking off a big gain.” All of the rushers benefit from an experienced line; UMD is among the best teams in the FBS at getting RBs at least five yards beyond the line of scrimmage—and at converting short-yardage [two or less] downs. (One of the best tackles in the B1G, Michael Dunn [#76], anchors the line.) But the key to UMD’s rushing success is perimeter blocking, and Jacobs has said, “it may be more fun blocking than catching the ball.” With the Terps having the the 10th-least prolific passing attack in the nation, that seems like a good attitude to have.
(Dantonio said that LT Kodi Kieler has some minor injuries and did not practice much last week. Backup LG David Beedle is injured and will not play—which probably forced Dennis Finley (the only OL in the four-year senior class) to overcome the leg fracture he suffered last year and back up freshman Tyler Higby.)
Without Likely, UMD has no credible kick-return threat. It does have adequate alternates on punt returns—and, like MSU, it has had pretty good punt-coverage success. Last weekend the Spartans starting staggering two returners on punts; the up-man is there to catch shorter punts so that MSU is not burned on long rolling punts as it has been at times this year. (Johnson and Harrison, of all people, have each blocked a punt this year for the Terps.)
The Report projects a close game for four quarters. Lest Members think things hopeless in spite of the rationalizations for hope in the Brief, the narrative will end with a few more points along those lines. First, the Spartans have played a tougher schedule than UMD; the two UMD foes that are about as strong as NU and BYU have beaten the Terps by wider margins than those suffered by MSU in the last two weeks. Second, UMD gives up 3.2 sacks per game (worst in the B1G; 10th-worst in the FBS). Third, MSU has never lost at Maryland; it is 6-1, and the only loss was in 1950.
Finally: While MSU has lost four turnovers in past three games, UMD has lost eight in its last three games.