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Maryland football: Behind enemy lines with the Michigan State Spartans

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Checking in on the Spartans with Pete Rossman, who covers the team for SB Nation's Michigan State hub, The Only Colors.

Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook is having a quality season.
Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook is having a quality season.
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks to Pete Rossman of The Only Colors, the network's Michigan State community, for stopping in this week to answer my queries about the Spartans football team. We wrote back and forth about Michigan State's outlook after a hard loss to Ohio State last weekend and, of course, plenty on Saturday night's meeting between the Terps and Spartans at Byrd Stadium. Let's go on:

TT: Michigan State's loss to Ohio State must have been deflating for the program and its fans. How has your attitude about the Spartans changed this week? Have you re-calibrated expectations?

TOC: Well, they gotta keep going, because even though they won't make it to the college football playoff, I doubt the team wants the words "lost to Rutgers" anywhere near itself.  Still, if they win the next three games (this one, Rutgers, at Penn State), they'll probably make a Big 6 bowl, which is still pretty good for the season. I remember the John L. [Smith] days where this team pioneered ways to throw games away, so another double-digit wins season, although not the best case scenario, will still be satisfying.

TT: For readers who haven' seen a lot of Michigan State, what can you tell us about the offensive and defensive systems the Spartans will throw at Maryland?

TOC: The offense has been significantly more balanced than last season given the emergence of quarterback Connor Cook late last year. The offense isn't anything I would call exotic: it's run mainly out of the pro set, with a wide receiver end around every now and then to test the exterior of the defense. As for the defense, I recommend this Grantland article, it's the best explanation of the MSU defense I've seen. In short, the defense wants to cheat towards the run, trusts its secondary to use man coverage on the receivers, and forces the quarterback to make great throws to beat the defense.

TT: Michigan State has the second-best turnover margin in college football, a 1.56-turnover edge per game, which is silly. How have the Spartans done it?

TOC: To be honest, I'm not really sure myself! Fumble recoveries tend to be random, and MSU has recovered 14 of 16 opponent fumbles this season. That's the highest recovery percentage in FBS (87.5%), and the Spartans can't be expected to keep recovering fumbles at such a rate.

TT: Ohio State's offense ran up almost 600 yards against Michigan State in what seemed like a bit of a track meet. Michigan State's other loss, to Oregon, also came against a wildly explosive offense. Other than by having off-the-charts athleticism and speed, how can an offense beat Pat Narduzzi's defense?

TOC: The one proven way to beat the Narduzzi defense this season (and in previous seasons) has been to have a great QB making accurate throws to his receivers. There's only been three QBs I can recall being able to do this consistently in the past three years: Russell Wilson, Marcus Mariota, and J.T. Barrett last week. While C.J. Brown might be able to beat the MSU defense deep once or twice, I don't think he'll be able to perform the surgery Barrett did last Saturday.

TT: While its defense was ravaged, Michigan State's offense did plenty of good work against the Buckeyes. Everyone knows about Connor Cook and Tony Lippett, but what should the Terrapins be wariest of on that side of the ball?

TOC: While Cook did have a good game against the Buckeyes, I actually think running back Jeremy Langford was the most impressive. He ran 18 times for 137 yards, and in a conference with such a great cadre of running backs (Tevin Coleman, Ameer Abdullah and Melvin Gordon being the top three), Langford tends to get lost in the shuffle at times. He's been consistently very good for MSU though.

TT: If Maryland's going to pull off an upset here, what has to happen?

TOC: I felt significantly more worried about this game when Stefon Diggs hadn't yet been ruled out. With him out though, the Terps lose their biggest chance to exploit MSU's biggest defensive weakness, mentioned previously - the ability for receivers to beat the MSU secondary deep. However, if Maryland wants to win this game, they need great field position. MSU's 36-11 win against Michigan would have looked more ridiculous if the Spartans hadn't gave Michigan field position inside the MSU 40 three times.

TT: I suspect you - quite reasonably, I should say - expect Michigan State to win this ballgame. So I'll ask for your prediction against the roughly 12-point spread. Does Maryland stay inside of that figure?

TOC: After their last loss (Oregon), MSU had a bye week and then scored seven touchdowns against Eastern Michigan. MSU won't be rolling into College Park and doing that on Saturday, since Maryland is an actual football team and Eastern Michigan is a football-like substance. That said, I think Maryland plays a good game and ends up just outside of the 10.5 point spread when it opened (now at 12 points) – let's call it 35-21 MSU.