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Michigan State Spartans at Maryland Terrapins: Preview, Predictions & Prognostications

Mark Dantonio, Michigan State Spartans

When: Sat. Oct. 22, 2016; 7:30 pm ET
Where: College Park, MD; Maryland Stadium (51,802)
TV: BTN
All-Time Series: Michigan State leads 6-1
Last Meeting: Michigan State 24-7 win in 2015
Line: Michigan State (-3)

A nighttime spotlight game for Maryland comes with a much different set of circumstances than was expected a month ago, or even 2 weeks ago. The Terrapins are trying to bounce back from a couple bad losses after a 4-0 start to the season, while Michigan State is just trying to pick up the pieces following the first four-game losing streak of Mark Dantonio’s long tenure at the helm of the Spartans. It makes for a bit of desperation, but at least one team will get back on track thanks to this game!

For Michigan State, it will be interesting to see how this team responds now that essentially all the season goals are gone. There’s still an open quarterback derby, and games like this one are winnable if MSU can find some sort of consistent decent/good play at this position. Aside from Rutgers, these could be the worst two teams in the division, so this game will establish just how far MSU has fallen from the Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff berth of 2015.

For Maryland, this will be D.J. Durkin’s first opportunity to generate a scheme against the Spartans as a head coach. His Michigan defenses were certainly up to the task, although the Wolverines found some new and painful ways to not win in that rivalry series the past couple seasons. There’s certainly enough blueprint provided by teams of totally different ilk, like Wisconsin and Northwestern, so it will be interesting to see if Maryland can also execute and play off those same weaknesses revealed by other teams in the MSU losing streak.

Will one of the deans of B1G head coaches get his team to win on the road, or will the newcomer coach earn an important fifth win in the drive for bowl-eligibility?

 

1 Burning Question: Does either team have a healthy and effective quarterback?

After sticking with redshirt senior Tyler O’Connor for the first three games of the season, Mark Dantonio and his offensive staff turned the keys over to freshman quarterback Brian Lewerke during the Wisconsin blowout loss. Lewerke took over as starter in a surprising decision last week against Northwestern, and he sparked the Spartans to a 17-7 lead early. However, the offense then stalled until the second half, when O’Connor came back in and threw for 3 touchdowns in a comeback effort that fell short.

Clearly the Spartans should likely build for the future now with four losses, but Lewerke and fellow underclassman Damion Terry may just not be ready for the spotlight. That could mean more playing time for O’Connor, which is not a plan for future long-term success thanks to him being a redshirt senior. Ohio State in 2015 and many other teams have proven you can’t effectively balance more than one quarterback, yet that is exactly what MSU is trying to do. Until that changes, this will be a huge liability (if you have two or more quarterbacks, you might as well have none).

Meanwhile for Maryland, a similar conundrum has arrived thanks to injury rather than ineffective play. Senior QB Perry Hills was knocked out of the loss against Penn State with a shoulder injury and missed the game against Minnesota, which forced true freshman Tyrrell Pigrome to make his first college start last week. It is unclear if Hills will be ready to go, which makes a dramatic difference in how Maryland plays offense.

Both teams have tough questions at the most important position in the sport. If either can find answers this week, that could bode well for finally stopping a losing streak and maybe finding momentum to build a winning streak at the end of October.

2 Key Stats:

— 136.2.  That’s the 2016 rushing average for Michigan State (14th in B1G).  A moment after focusing on the huge quarterback questions facing both teams, we turn to the most surprising of statistics for the Spartans this year: a totally ineffective rushing attack. Indeed, what has exacerbated the quarterback play struggles has been the failure of the trio of talented MSU running backs to dominate games. The offensive line has to play much better than it has in the first half of the season if L.J. Scott is to live up to his potential as one of the best backs in the conference. Plus, without this phase of the game finding positive results, MSU becomes too easy to stop thanks to predictable play calls.

— 91.3%. That’s the red zone offensive efficiency for Maryland (2nd in B1G), and also the red zone defensive efficiency for Michigan State (13th in B1G).  Despite both these teams having a reasonably good red zone offense, Michigan State has simply not been able to stop many teams this season in the most critical part of the field. The Spartans have surrenders 16 touchdowns in 23 opponent red zone trips, which is ironically exactly what Maryland has done in its own 23 red zone trips. To win a close game such as this one, making a big play or two in the red zone could very well make the difference. So far in 2016, MSU seems less capable of that than Maryland.

3 Key Players:

R.J. Shelton, Michigan State WR: Even with the quarterback controversy and struggles this season, Shelton has emerged as the next great Spartans wide receiver. He is near the top of the Big Ten charts with nearly 5 receptions a game and over 75 yards receiving per game, with 4 total touchdowns on the year. Regardless of which player is taking the snaps, Shelton presents a tough coverage match up for the defense and thus will remain a key part of moving the MSU offense down the field. Particularly if star DB Will Likely cannot play for Maryland due to injury, Shelton could break out for a couple more touchdowns and big plays in this game. Keep an eye on Shelton in the return game as well.

Riley Bullough, Michigan State LB: One would expect Maryland to use a heavy dose of the run attack to try and wear down the Spartans defense and win this game, even more so if Perry Hills is unable to stay on the field. Bulgur returned from injury last week and must now come up to speed and lead this defense back to the dominant unit it was a season ago. That will require both reading plays from the middle of the defense as well as bringing successful blitz pressure to keep the Maryland quarterback out of rhythm. Without a good performance from Bullough in this second game back, the Terrapins could have a field day just like the Wildcats had last week when scoring 54 against this defense.

Jermaine Carter, Maryland LB: One player you may not yet know is this junior linebacker for the Terrapins, but he is quickly making a name for himself with good statistics and good performances on the field in 2016. Carter has three sacks as well as 7.7 tackles per game, which ranks near the top 10 of all defensive players in the conference. Just like how Bullough will be a key leader to stopping Maryland’s offense, Carter will need to step up once again and be a driving force to slow down Michigan State’s offense. Look for a couple big plays out of this new rising star.

 4 Staff Predictions:

Andy: Michigan State 27-24
Dave: Maryland 30-27
Phil H.: Michigan State 27-20
Philip R.: Maryland 28-24

Dave is a FWAA member and a Columnist focusing on Big Ten football for talking10. Before joining talking in 2014, he was a Featured Columnist for three years at Bleacher Report and previously wrote for seven years on SouthernCollegeSports.com. He was born in Hawkeye Country and went to college in Columbus, so there's plenty of B1G running through his blood. Dave is a patent and trademark attorney in his day job. If you have any questions in those areas or about his latest articles, please contact him on Twitter @BuckeyeFitzy.

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