Under the lights at Byrd Stadium is a fun atmosphere. There should be a big crowd and the team will be looking good in their Black Ops uniforms. That being said, Maryland isn't used to playing under the lights. This game is their latest kick-off of the year by five and half hours. Two thirds of their games have kicked off before 1:00. The last meaningful home night game that Maryland has played in was probably the 2010-2011 season when FSU came to town. Meanwhile, Michigan State is used to the pressure that comes with these night games on national TV. They are used to playing in big games and they are used to winning them (this year excluded). This atmosphere probably won't faze them. But onto the game itself!
In the game against Penn State, C.J. Brown managed a quarterback rating of 18.0 while completing only 47% of his passes for 161 yards. He was 18/38 with a touchdown. He did have a run of 23 yards but his overall rushing numbers were horrible because Penn State was constantly in the Maryland backfield. Overall he had four yards on 13 carries, averaging 0.3 yards per rush. However, credit to C.J. Brown for making the plays on the final drive that put Maryland in position to win the game.
C.J. Brown has been an average quarterback statistically. He completes 54% of his passes and hasn't even thrown for 1,500 yards this season. He is 10th in passing yards in the Big Ten, 11th in completion percentage and 10th in passing efficiency. Those are not good numbers. This might be the best overall defense he plays all year (although it is close with Ohio State and Penn State) and C.J. didn't play well against Wisconsin or any of the teams that I just mentioned.
Connor Cook has been one of the nation's best quarterbacks this season. He is 1st in the Big Ten in passing yards, 6th in completion percentage and 2nd in passing efficiency. He has the 2nd most passing touchdowns (19) and he has only thrown five interceptions this season. Last year, he led Michigan State to a 13-1 season where they went undefeated in the Big Ten and beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl. The one loss that year was a 17-13 loss to Notre Dame in South Bend.
How did the then-sophomore Cook respond? By beating every team after that by double digits (including an undefeated Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game) up until their 24-20 win in the Rose Bowl. Cook isn't used to losing and he will come out ready to make a statement. Cook chewed up a great Ohio State defense last week to the tune of 358 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions on 25/45 passing. When I looked up C.J.'s numbers against Ohio State, my laptop started to cry. With Cook under center for the last two seasons, the Spartans are 20-3. There is no contest here. Cook wins this one going away.
Advantage: Michigan State
Maryland averages about 30 points a game. They don't do any one thing particularly well on offense. They are balanced in their approach running and passing the football. Against Penn State, they ran the ball 31 times and threw it 38 times. Maryland's leading rusher is C.J. Brown and he is 22nd in the conference in rushing yards and is 30th in yards per attempt. They put 24 points (some of those in garbage time) against Ohio State, 20 against Penn State and only seven (garbage time) points against Wisconsin. The pattern here is that Maryland's offense struggles against great defenses. I think Maryland will struggle on Saturday.
What is even worse news for Maryland is that they have lost Stefon Diggs for the season with a lacerated kidney. Their best receiver and playmaker is out of commission. Diggs was going to miss this game anyway because of the suspension handed down because of his actions in the Penn State game but this injury makes it that much harder for the Maryland offense going forward. Jacquille Veii, who will replace Diggs at wide receiver, is an explosive player but is no Stefon Diggs.
Michigan State managed to put up 37 points on Ohio State and still lost. They have a top-10 scoring offense that is averaging 44.6 points per game. They are a top-20 rushing team and we already know that Maryland has had struggles stopping the run this year. The Spartans average 246 yards on the ground and, as mentioned, Connor Cook is among the nation's best signal callers.
Jeremy Langford is one of the Big Ten's best running backs. He has 13 rushing touchdowns and averages 5.5 yards a carry. He will most likely eclipse 1,000 yards rushing for the season during the game. Tony Lippett is one of the Big Ten's best wideouts. He leads the conference in receiving yards and touchdown catches and is second in average yards per catch. Michigan State's lowest scoring output of the season was 27 points which they have hit twice. Maryland without Stefon Diggs is much less threatening as an offense. This one is easy to call.
Advantage: Michigan State
Maryland's defense stepped up and gave the Terps opportunity after opportunity to beat Penn State. Somehow Maryland won the game in spite of the malaise on offense. I think that credit should go to Maryland's defense for that win but Penn State's offense was much worse than I had originally thought. Andre Monroe had a great game for Maryland and he and Darius Kilgo will need to have great games on Saturday for Maryland to have a chance at winning. The battle for the line of scrimmage will be crucial against a great offense like Michigan State. Cook doesn't make many bad decisions so it will be important to get defensive pressure. The only problem is that Cook's offensive line is one of the best in the nation and Cook has only been sacked six times in nine games.
Will Likely has been a playmaker for Maryland all season long and they will need a big play or two from him. Maryland's defense gives up 28 points a game but they gave up 52 points to Wisconsin and Ohio State. Both had phenomenal offensive lines and great running games. Michigan State has a phenomenal offensive line and a great running game. It doesn't look good from that perspective.
Michigan State allows 23.4 points per game but I think they have a much better defense than those numbers indicate. For a great read, check out Alex Kirshner's piece on how the statistics can be a little misleading. The offenses that really hurt the Spartans were both designed to spread the Spartans thin. Almost no one does that better than Oregon and the Ducks put up 46 points in Eugene after Michigan State had contained them for most of the first half. J.T. Barrett runs Urban Meyer's spread attack superbly and Ohio State ran for 268 yards and four touchdowns against Michigan State last week.
Maryland doesn't run the ball that well. They don't have a high-powered, up-tempo running game that will ground opponents into dust. Michigan State can keep their safeties playing high instead of bringing them in to help stop the run. Keep an eye out for linebacker Ed Davis, who is tied for 6th in sacks in the Big Ten, and defensive end Shilique Calhoun who is 4th in sacks. The Spartans can get after the quarterback and Maryland has not done a good job of pass protecting this season.
Michigan State had the "Legion of Boom" of college secondaries last year and they are still really good this year. Stefon Diggs wasn't going to be playing in this game because of the Big Ten suspension so Michigan State's job gets even easier. Michigan State is ranked 12th in the country and they have been effectively knocked out of the playoff race. They still have pride and the Spartans are going to look to stick it to Maryland after giving up 49 points last week. Oregon and Ohio State both have Heisman candidates in Marcus Mariota and J.T. Barrett under center. Maryland has neither of those two. This defense will stifle Maryland.
Advantage: Michigan State
Will Likely will be the primary return man on punts and kickoffs and he already has taken one back to the house for a touchdown. Nate Renfro leads the Big Ten in number of punts (not a good thing) and punting yards.
Michael Geiger is 8/14 kicking field goals this season for Michigan State and he hasn't even attempted one over 50 yards. On the other hand, Brad Craddock is 14/14 including the game winner against Penn State. He has a long of 57 yards. Maryland has one of the nation's best special teams units and Craddock continues chugging along toward the Lou Groza Award. Maryland wins decisively here.
You may have noticed a pattern in the predictions and that is that they tended to favor Michigan State. You would be absolutely correct. Michigan State is ranked 12th in the nation and with Connor Cook they are 20-3 over the last two years. It's about to be 21-3.