After a week where Maryland football saw DJ Durkin both return to being its head coach and then get fired, the Terps will attempt to focus on football as they look to clinch bowl eligibility against Michigan State. To learn about who Maryland will face in a game that will carry greater meaning than just the final score, we spoke to Jonathan LeBlanc of The State News to get to know the Spartans. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Michigan State is 2-0 on the road since losing at Arizona State, including an upset win at Penn State. How have the Spartans improved playing away from East Lansing?
I think it's more so coming off bad losses and playing motivated, rather than Michigan State playing well on the road.
In the Arizona State game, the Spartans had several opportunities to take the lead or pull away from the Sun Devils, but couldn’t. And they weren’t happy for the next two weeks, until they put up 35 against Indiana, which also showcased Mark Dantonio’s willingness to use trick plays, such as fake field goal runs and jet sweeps to a true freshman. Then after the Spartans lost to Northwestern, the players and coaches were upset and knew they could do better. So, they went to Happy Valley, played motivated and limited Trace McSorley and Miles Sanders to only a couple big runs, and came away with a win.
And you also see the trick plays against the Nittany Lions, with running back Connor Heyward running a fake punt and almost throwing a touchdown. Those help keep opposing defenses off guard, MSU’s defense off the field and helps build momentum for MSU’s offense, which hasn’t exactly been the best this season.
Michigan State is the top team in the nation against the run. Who along the defensive line sets the tone?
The run defense all starts with defensive tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk. Williams is an athletic, 6-foot-4, 300 pound tackle. He can bully offensive linemen with ease, can cover ground quickly if a running back or wide receiver gets away outside the tackles and even tip passes. Panasiuk isn’t as athletic, but he’s still a bruiser that won’t let anybody go by him, and can also tip passes effectively such as last week against Purdue on a field-goal attempt. Both are also able to communicate not only to the rest of the defensive line in the game, but also relay instructions to the rest of the defense on what play is coming and other important information — especially with Williams, who also has a high motor. And backups Naquan Jones and Gerald Owens are also extremely serviceable, and can give Williams and Panasiuk a break when needed.
Maryland leads the Big Ten in interceptions, with Tre Watson and Darnell Savage leading the conference individually. Why has Brian Lewerke struggled at times with turnovers?
Lewerke’s struggles I think is him being uncomfortable in the pocket with an ever-shifting offensive line, mostly because of injuries, has forced him to be cautious when throwing the ball and feeling like he has to make every play. Though the offensive line has settled in since Penn State, Lewerke has been harboring an unknown right-shoulder injury since Penn State, with his status most likely a game-time decision for Dantonio. The fact that he’s lost wide receiver Felton Davis III (torn left Achilles), and at times hasn’t had Cody White (broken left hand), Darrell Stewart Jr. (ankle), and running back LJ Scott (ankle) hasn’t helped either.
Maryland is 11th in the nation in rushing yards per game, due in large part to the depth at running back. How do you think Michigan State will deal with the Terps' versatile attack?
Michigan State will keep doing what it’s been doing by just clogging up running lanes with the defensive tackles in the middle, rotating them in and out, the defensive ends on the outside, with pressure from linebackers Joe Bachie and whoever is at the SAM (usually Tyriq Thompson, Jon Reschke or Brandon Bouyer-Randle). And MSU hopes that forces Maryland to abandon the run and go to the passing game — like mostly every other team so far this season outside of Michigan and Penn State.
Michigan State wins if...
...it can stop the run and have a productive day on offense like last week against Purdue. Though the Spartans only scored 23, backup quarterback Rocky Lombardi was able to move the offense really well. If he didn't overthrow a couple deep balls, MSU would've probably won by more than 17 points.
Maryland wins if...
...it can keep Michigan State’s offense off the field and its defense on the field. It’s cliche, but you really saw that against Michigan when the Wolverines dominated MSU’s offense, and forced the Spartans' defense on the field for 41:03. If the Terps can keep MSU’s offense off the field, they have a chance of taking down the Spartans.