EAST LANSING, Mich. – To coach Michael Locksley, the best part of Maryland’s 31-9 win over Michigan State was that, when he entered the locker room postgame, his players were disappointed.
Saturday marked the first time since 1950 that the Terps left East Lansing with a win and the first two-game win streak over the Spartans in program history.
Maryland (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) used a desperately needed quick start and took advantage of a reeling Michigan State squad (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) to start conference play with a win for just the second time in the Locksley era. That helped mask a somewhat sloppy performance from the Terps offense that sputtered in the second half and a defense that allowed the Spartans to amass yardage despite the tiny point total.
Inconsistent play against inferior opponents has defined Maryland through the first four games. But it maintains a distinction that a dwindling number of teams can claim: undefeated.
“We didn’t finish the way we like to, and there’s some things that we can get cleaned up,” Locksley said. “It’s always great to clean it up with a win.”
Finally, a fast start
Locksley told his team after its win over Virginia — its second straight game falling behind 14-0 — that he had enough evidence it could overcome adversity. The Terps had reason to be a bit sluggish against the Cavaliers.
Consecutive night games, the latter of which was on a Friday, gave Maryland a compressed schedule that saw its players work for 13 straight days without a break. Perhaps because of that, the Terps cut out the practice period in which their starters face off against each other in 11-on-11s in the past two weeks.
“When you go good on good, that’s where you really get the speed of what a game is like,” Locksley said Tuesday. “The developmental team doesn’t always finish. They don’t always get off blocks.”
He hypothesized that, because of that reduced intensity, the Terps took about a quarter to get acclimated to game speed. With an extra day of rest, Maryland reintroduced that segment of practice and, while correlation isn’t causation, got immediate results.
Michigan State opened with the ball and gained a pair of first downs before safety Beau Brade, returning from a one-game absence due to injury, stepped in front of a pass for his first pick of the year.
Taulia Tagovailoa and the Maryland offense took nine plays to travel 45 yards and score the opening touchdown. A smooth play fake from the 1-yard line got every Spartan to bite, leaving linebacker-turned-fullback Sean Greeley wide open to catch his first career touchdown.
“Players play,” Locksley said. “The execution early on, the turnovers, we were able to finish those turnovers with touchdowns, which helped us. I’d love to say that [the reintroduction of good on good was the reason why. … I don’t know if that was the fix.”
Michigan State’s next drive took 15 plays and took it down to the Terps 1-yard line — running back Nate Carter gained 32 yards on six carries. But, on a fourth-and-goal, penetration from defensive end Riyad Wilmot turned the potential touchdown into a 4-yard loss.
Eleven plays, 95 yards and Tyrese Chambers’ first Terps touchdown later, it was Maryland that had the 14-0 advantage.
Offense needs to hone details
An unchecked Spartans rusher hurtled toward Tagovailoa, hoping to lay a thundering hit midway through the third quarter. He whiffed as the Terps quarterback escaped him and rolled out of the pocket.
It felt like a highlight waiting to happen with the Spartans defense scrambling to cover receivers. Tagovailoa looked like he had Tai Felton in the back of the end zone, but as the pass arrived Michigan State safety Angelo Grose picked it off.
Similar doldrums continued through a second half in which Maryland’s offense sputtered. The Terps scored on each of their first three drives and were in the 96th percentile in EPA per play at the half, per Game on Paper. By the end of the game, they’d scored on three of their last eight possessions and were in the 47th percentile.
“We were just a little bit off for whatever reason with our base offensive systems,” Locksley said, “whether it was just off on a perimeter block that would have allowed us to maybe create some big plays, maybe off on a few throws.”
Tagovailoa finished with 223 passing yards, three scores and that interception. Maryland converted four of its first five third downs but was just 2-of-10 in the second half.
Defense, special teams snatch away possessions
For the second straight week, Tarheeb Still knew what was coming.
The receiver he was matched up with went down the line to block. The left tackle ambled outside with more offensive linemen and a running back following, all telltale signs of an imminent screen.
When the Michigan State quarterback overthrew the intended target, Still was there with no Spartans in position to get him. He sprinted downfield with blockers ahead and was en route to his first career touchdown before tripping over his own feet.
“The grass monster got me,” he said.
The return didn’t end up counting because Still stepped out at the Terps 19-yard line, but it essentially sealed the win.
Michigan State was 8 yards from scoring a touchdown. That combined with an extra point would’ve brought it within one possession. The senior corner ensured that wouldn’t happen with one of the five turnovers Maryland’s defense forced. It was opportunistic rather than dominant.
The Spartans gained positive EPA on 88 percent of their offensive plays, per Game on Paper. But they finished with -0.20 EPA per play for the game, a mark in the 16th percentile. That’s because of those turnovers, which accounted for five of the game’s six biggest plays by absolute EPA.
The Terps also took one more potential possession away from the Spartans on the opening drive of the third quarter. Facing a fourth-and-10 at his own 25, punter Colton Spangler moved to his left. He saw an open lane, and as Maryland’s scheme dictates, took off to gain 14 yards and a first down.
“Hopefully I’ll get coach of the week because I called a punt down inside my own 20,” Locksley said. “I promise you we didn’t call a fake punt down in there. … Players make plays. Colton’s one of those guys that he’s athletic enough to do it. I’m glad he did it because he was able to extend the drive for us.”