By the time reports broke about Stefon Diggs's kidney laceration on Monday, the Terps had already known for at least a week that their star wideout would miss Saturday night's game against Michigan State – the product of a Big Ten suspension stemming from the pregame fracas at Penn State on Nov. 1. Diggs's injury is unsettling from a long-term medical standpoint, but Maryland has a pressing and immediate concern ahead of it, too: How does a struggling offense start to score points when it loses its best player before it faces a high-end defense?
Michigan State's defense has pedestrian numbers overall, but those are misleading. Aside from the 1,059 yards and 95 points they surrendered in two games against Oregon and Ohio State – offensive juggernauts, both of them – the Spartans' defense has been excellent. In their seven other games, they've given up an average of 249 yards of total offense and 16.6 points. The Spartans rank eighth in the Big Ten in scoring defense, but without the bloodbaths against J.T. Barrett and Marcus Mariota, they'd be in an effective tie for second. They would be first in total defense.
Maryland offensive coordinator MIke Locksley said the Spartans' trouble against the Buckeyes was rooted in numbers. Since Michigan State often uses its cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage and brings safeties into the box as run stoppers, Locksley said, the Spartans' 4-3 defense can be vulnerable on the outside or over the top. Michigan State ceded touchdown passes of 44 and 79 yards to Ohio State.
"You're in those types of situations, you're going to win or lose some of those battles," Locksley said. "This defense is as salty as any of these defenses we've faced here in the last three or four weeks, and we've got a challenge on our hands."
Of course, no team gets to erase its worst performances. But Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown is more comparable, for instance, to Michigan's Devin Gardner (whose team scored 11 points against Michigan State) than he is to Barrett (49) or Mariota (46). And Brown has just lost Diggs, one of the better receivers in Maryland history and the most dangerous playmaker on this Terps offense by a seemingly infinite margin. Jacquille Veii will start in Diggs's place at receiver, and Will Likely will take his spot as the Terps' primary kick returner.
"We didn't have him before for a few games," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said, recalling the six games Diggs missed with a broken leg at the end of last season. "We can't dwell on the guys that aren't on the field. Worry about the guys that are on the field, and we have confidence in each and every guy that is going to go out there and play and do the job we want done."
As it stands, these are hard times for the Maryland offense. The Terps have not reached 200 yards of total offense in a game since Iowa visited nearly a month ago. Against Wisconsin, they scored 7 points and averaged 3.1 yards per play, then they scored 20 points at a 2.9-yard rate against Penn State. The last time Maryland quarterbacks had a genuinely good game was against Indiana on Sept. 27, when Brown and Caleb Rowe combined to throw for 361 yards and three scores. The Terrapins are 6-3, but their record is several steps ahead of their offense.
Diggs's absence will hurt, but Maryland can take heart that Veii has a somewhat similar skill set. Veii is a smallish 5 feet 9 inches, but he's lightning quick and has at times flashed the ball skills typical of a quality wideout. Behind Maryland's usual starters, Amba Etta-Tawo, Malcolm Culmer and Juwann Winfree have also contributed over the past two seasons. All will be at Brown's disposal on Saturday.
"We've been fortunate that we've played a lot of guys here the last few years, and at the receiver position this is nothing new to us, not having [Diggs] available to us," Locksley said. "The next man has to come in and step up and provide some plays for us."
Though Maryland converted Veii from a running back to a receiver before the season, he has functionally remained more of a back than a wideout, with 14 of his 20 offensive touches coming via the carry. Edsall said he was growing in his new role, however.
"I think it's just a process with him," Edsall said. "He's still learning. He's still developing, but the thing that I like about it - every day he's out there working hard, he's trying to improve. He's studying the film."
The Michigan State defense will be harder to beat than Ohio State made it appear. The Spartans average a conference-leading 3.3 sacks per game, led by 12.5 combined takedowns from defensive end Shilique Calhoun and linebacker Ed Davis. The rush defense ranks fourth in the league with 115 yards allowed per game and, as its sack total suggests, gets consistent quarterback pressure in the pass rush. Maryland's offensive line has an immense challenge on its hands.
"These guys come off the ball with power," Locksley said. "They're a very big, strong, physical front four - big bull-rushers, so you're facing a bull-rusher, you've got to be able to stop the charge initially."
Given the force of Michigan State's linemen and coordinator Pat Narduzzi's tendency to drag his safeties from the secondary toward the line of scrimmage – a press quarters scheme, as it is known – Brown will have to execute his throws against whoever remains in the defensive backfield.
"You have to," Locksley said. "It'll be a long day if you think you're going to run the ball against a nine-man box."