Big Ten Conference play is underway, and the gauntlet that is the league’s East division is in full effect.
Outside of a couple years, Michigan State has been in the upper half of the East division since the Big Ten switched to regional divisions. Maryland hasn’t finished higher than fourth in the division and routinely struggles to beat the big four of Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State.
After a close loss last week to Michigan, the Terrapins have a shot to beat a wounded Michigan State this week. While the Terps are flawed, their strengths play into Michigan State’s flaws. This could be the year they break into the top four of the East.
Maryland is off to a 3-1 start after comfortable wins over Buffalo and Charlotte, and a close win over SMU before last week’s defeat at the hands of the Wolverines. Both the Terrapins and Spartans enter Saturday’s game having lost their conference openers.
With that said, let’s look into the specifics about this Maryland football team:
The Terrapins’ coaching staff is led by Mike Locksley, who is in his third full season as Maryland’s head coach. Though he’s been a journeyman, Locksley seems to have carved out a spot with the Terrapins. His third stint in College Park, where he was the running backs coach from 1997-2002 and the offensive coordinator from 2012-2015, Locksley returned to the program in 2019 as head coach after spending time at Alabama in between.
With a bowl win last season, Maryland has improved every year since Locksley was hired. The head coach has hired assistant coaches that are successful on the recruiting trail, and has wisely used the transfer portal to supplement his roster. Maryland has one of the better high school talent pools around them, being located in the DMV area. Keeping some of those local players home has contributed to their success.
The Terrapins’ offensive coordinator is Dan Enos, who is a Michigan State alum. After playing for the Spartans from 1987-1990, Enos is another who’s had a journeyman’s career, and he coached with Locksley at Alabama. His most successful year as an OC has been this year so far. He struggled at stops such as Miami and Arkansas. Enos brings experience on the offensive staff, and he and Locksley think alike and have similar philosophies.
Maryland’s defensive coordinator is Brian Williams. He’s a younger coach, but he’s helped the Terrapins’ defense improve. Hired as the linebackers coach in 2019, Williams was promoted to defensive coordinator this past offseason. He has been one of the most successful recruiters in the conference, and has renovated the Terrapins’ defense.
The Terps offense is commanded by junior Taulia Tagovailoa, the younger brother of Miami Dolphins quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa. Taulia has had some success at Maryland, as Locksley’s offensive scheme allows him to throw the ball a ton. In his second year as the starter, Tagovailoa is completing nearly 75 percent of his passes. That doesn’t bode well for Michigan State’s already struggling secondary.
Maryland’s experienced offensive line has done a good job protecting Tagovailoa, who has only been sacked three times this season. Michigan State’s defensive line will have another test in this matchup and needs to get home on Taulia in order to give their defensive backs a shot.
Maryland has established the run well this season to complement their passing offense. Redshirt freshmen Roman Hemby and Antwain Littleton II have led the way so far. Both average over seven yards per carry, and they’ve combined for eight rushing touchdowns so far this season. Hemby is a threat in the passing attack too, as he averages 10.8 yards per catch on 10 receptions.
Be on the lookout for Tagovailoa too. He can escape the pocket and run when needed as well.
Even with all the talent above, the biggest strength of this offense is the receivers. The Terps have turned highly rated recruits into NFL prospects in future seasons, and it looks like they’ve done it again with this group. The headliner is junior Rakim Jarrett, who has been Maryland’s best receiver since he came in as a freshman. He was injured last week after a hard collision against Michigan, and it listed as a game-time decision.
Senior Jeshaun Jones and junior transfer Jacob Copeland complement him as big receiving targets with speed and power.
Maryland’s defense has had its ups and downs already this season. It has a similar “bend don’t break” defense that Michigan State has. While it’s been better than the Spartans’, it has still struggled at times. Junior safety Beau Brade leads the Terps in tackles this year with 32. Freshman linebacker Jaishawn Barham is another player to look out for, as he’s been a rising star for this team.
While the pass defense for Maryland has struggled, they have created two interceptions and have 18 pass deflections on the year. Compared to Michigan State’s pass defense, Maryland’s has been quicker to react to the ball in the air.
The Terrapins’ pass rush has been consistently solid throughout the season. They have nine sacks on the season, including two in each of the games that were competitive (SMU and Michigan). Senior defensive lineman Henry Chibueze leads the team in sacks with two, but it’s been a team effort for Maryland in getting after the quarterback.
The Terps’ run defense is better than their pass defense, but it’s still a work in progress. Maryland had no answer for Michigan running back Blake Corum, who rushed for 243 yards on them last week. On the year, the Terrapins are allowing 149.5 yards per game. If Michigan State can establish the run against Maryland, the Terps defense could be in trouble.
As obvious as it sounds, this game will come down to how well Michigan State plays. In the last two games it felt like MSU was playing against themselves. Maryland played Michigan about as well as they could and still fell short. The Wolverines are a very good team – while hard to admit, it’s true. Michigan State should know what to expect from Maryland’s offense: throwing the ball the whole game. That will be every team’s game plan against the Spartans until MSU can prove they can stop it.
The Terrapins, however, may not know what to expect from Michigan State’s offense. Neither the rushing or passing offense worked last week against Minnesota. What will the Spartans prioritize? Can they find the weak links in Maryland’s defense. Will it be enough to win? Can the Spartan defense regain control?
This will be telling game for both teams, and it could determine bowl eligibility for one or both of them. If MSU drops three straight, there is a high chance they won’t make a bowl. If Michigan State wins, it could bring back hope for the team, in one of the toughest stretches in all of college football.