As margin for error narrows, defense becomes more important for Michigan State and Maryland
This is a big one.
At 2-4, you could argue winning this game is imperative for Michigan State. A loss would mean the Spartans would need wins in four of their final five contests to reach bowl eligibility. With Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State all still on the schedule, that feat would seem nearly impossible to accomplish.
Maryland has a bit more wiggle room. An undefeated non-conference schedule and a win over Purdue to open B1G play put the six-win mark in manageable reach for D.J. Durkin and the Terrapins. But the remaining schedule is no cakewalk, either. The Terps also have bouts with the Wolverines and the Buckeyes upcoming, as well as a cross-divisional game with Nebraska.
For Michigan State, the second half of the season is about salvaging something out of a disappointing year. Maryland has already surpassed its win total from 2015, but bowl eligibility would be a nice feather in the cap for Durkin after his first year in College Park.
We’ve reached a pivotal stage in the eighth week of the season. Who would’ve thought we’d be saying that Mark Dantonio desperately needed a win over Maryland to keep postseason hopes alive?
So how do two teams that have combined to lose six in a row – four-straight for MSU and two-consecutive for Maryland – get things straightened out and start the second half of the year on a positive note?
It’s all about defense.
The former “No Fly Zone” is giving up too many yards through the air. Durkin’s success against the run while defensive coordinator at Michigan hasn’t translated to his new program yet. Both teams are giving up too many points.
Michigan State’s defense is giving up 229.7 yards per game through the air, the second-worst total in the B1G. Last week, Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson racked up 281 yards and three TDs in route to a 54-40 win in East Lansing. It was one of the worst performances in the history of Spartan Stadium.
Obviously the Spartans have been depleted on that side of the ball and that has led to some of the team’s issues. Linebackers Riley Bullough and John Reschke have played in just five combined games this season, leaving a huge void to fill. Cornerback Darian Hicks has missed the last two games and is questionable for Saturday.
Injuries have been a big problem for Dantonio’s defense. But even with some of the unpredictable problems this team has faced, some of the veterans, guys like cornerback Vayante Copeland and All-B1G defensive lineman Malik McDowell haven’t looked as sharp as what we expected earlier in the season.
The defensive line isn’t getting the same push it’s had in the past. The Spartans have a paltry six sacks on the season, the lowest total in the B1G and ranking 121st in the nation. Quarterbacks are getting plenty of time in the pocket and Michigan State is getting burnt. Areas where this defense used to excel have quickly turned into its biggest weaknesses.
Luckily for Dantonio, his team meets a defense with its own issues, one that’s had a difficult time at containing running backs.
Maryland currently sits at 10th in the conference against the run, allowing 179.5 yards per game. But that number is slightly misleading. It held FCS foe Howard to 69 yards in the first game of the season and stuffed an inconsistent Purdue offense, holding the Boilermakers to just 10 yards for the day. In the other four contests, the Terrapins are allowing an average of 249.5 yards per contest.
Penn State rushed for 372 yards two weeks ago and Minnesota tallied 229 yards last Saturday. Maryland lost those two games by a combined score of 69-24.
The bigger issue for Maryland – particularly in the last two losses – has been allowing big plays. The Nittany Lions had three touchdown plays that came from 25 yards or further, including a 70-yard TD pass from Trace McSorley to DeAndre Thompkins. Last week, Minnesota’s Rodney Smith broke free for a 70-yard sprint to the end zone.
With the exception of Shane Cockerille and Jesse Aniebonam, the Terrapins have struggled to bring guys down in the backfield or meet ball-carriers at the line of scrimmage. Offensive lines are wearing down the front and a gassed defensively line as been torched for some of those big plays late in games.
Saturday should be an interesting match-up. Even though both teams have glaringly obvious holes, it doesn’t play into the strong-suit of the opponent.
Michigan State can’t defend the pass. Maryland ranks 13th in the conference in pass offense. The Terrapins can’t stop the run. The Spartans have the worst rushing offense in the B1G.
Both sides have things to fix. Maryland needs to keep an eye on ball-carriers. Michigan State needs to get more pressure on the quarterback. Both teams need to limit big plays and turnovers.
The team that does that is going to give itself a little more breathing room. At least for another week.