The Maryland football team knew it would face one of the country's better offenses on Saturday night. Michigan State entered the week with the sixth-best scoring offense in major college football, running up 45 points per game behind highly regarded skill players and a confrontational offensive line. On Saturday, the Terps' defense stifled them all for as long as it could, but that effort wasn't enough to drag a lowly offense to a victory.
Michigan State beat Maryland, 37-15, before a sellout crowd of 51,802 at Byrd Stadium and a primetime television audience on the Big Ten Network. Even with Maryland's prolonged stinginess on defense, the Spartans out-gained the Terrapins, 482 yards to 252, and held the ball for almost 38 of the game's 60 minutes.
For Maryland, Michigan State was always going to be a formidable opponent. The only two teams to beat the Spartans this year – Oregon and Ohio State – are marquee programs with elite quarterbacks (Marcus Mariota and J.T. Barrett) under center. It was clear beforehand that Maryland would need a good game from its own quarterback, sixth-year senior C.J. Brown, to have an opportunity to win. What it got was an inept passing night from Brown and an all-in-all offensive slog that never afforded Brian Stewart's defense the fighting chance it deserved on merit.
Coming in, Michigan State was the nation's second-best turnover team, with a positive differential of more than 1.5 takeaways per game. Maryland lost that battle by even more, but the defense prevented the game from turning into the unmitigated blowout it could have been. After a Brown interception on Maryland's first drive, the defense held for a field goal. After a Will Likely muffed punt in the second quarter, it held for a missed field goal. When Brown threw his ghastliest interception of the night, a third-quarter tipped-ball to Michigan State's R.J. Williamson, the safety returned it for a score. If he hadn't, perhaps Maryland's defense would have held again. But it never got the chance.
"The way we started off and I threw that pick," Brown said, "we were able to bounce back. But that last one for the pick-six, that one really hurt. I can't make that read. I can't make that decision and can't put our defense that situation. We were playing good, we were in the game, we needed to come back and get a drive together, and we weren't able to do it."
The Terps trailed by nine points at the time, still with about 16 minutes to play. Brown decided early on that he would try to find Deon Long in the middle of the field, instead of looking for Amba-Etta Tawo near the sideline. His throw for Long never had a chance, and whatever chance Maryland had at cobbling together a comeback was swiftly gone.
"I threw it to the wrong guy," Brown said. "I misread the coverage, and I should have threw it to the flat, not the slant."
Edsall simply called that throw "a poor decision." He was visibly furious with Brown when he returned to the sideline.
Brown finished the game having completed 20 of 43 passes for 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions, a 96 rating. His struggles abated for consecutive plays in the second quarter, when he found Jacquille Veii for a fourth-down conversion on one play, then a streaking Daniel Adams for a 20-yard touchdown on the next. Both Veii and Adams had their roles elevated in the suspended Stefon Diggs's absence. But Brown played poorly in the third quarter, and his beautiful touchdown throw to Juwann Winfree came too late to offer more than a nifty highlight.
Maryland averaged 4.2 yards per play, its third-worst total of the season - only ahead of the Terps' previous two games against Wisconsin and Penn State.
"Offensively, we got to hold ourselves accountable, and we didn't step up to the challenge today," Brown said. "I feel like the last couple weeks, it's been like that. That's not how we feel we can produce, and we have to fix it."
The Terrapins' offensive shortfalls did not fall totally at Brown's feet. His offensive line could open no holes for new starting running back Wes Brown, and the Terps totaled 6 – six – rushing yards. Brown's lack of vertical passing ability contributed to that, as Michigan State was able to shift its safeties toward the line of scrimmage without a well-founded fear of being scorched on deep passes, even though Brown connected on a few. Michigan State's defensive front is known for its power, and the group's raw ability showed through often. Against what was often an eight- or nine-man box, the Terps simply could't run.
"That's just their personnel," Brown said. "That's just the way they play – bringing the guys in the box, and we knew that going in."
"It kind of made us a little bit one-dimensional," Veii added of Michigan State's approach.
The Maryland defense got worse as the game went on, surely a byproduct of the unit being kept on the field for about two-thirds of the game. By the time the fourth quarter was halfway done, a previously raucous student section had emptied almost entirely, and so had the energy reserves of Maryland's defenders. The Terps allowed 5.7 yards per play in the first quarter, then 6.6, then 4.3 and then an ugly 8.1 to close – a 6.2-yard average in total, Michigan State's second-worst figure of the season. Michigan State ran 78 offensive plays to Maryland's 60.
"I didn't even notice it at all," Maryland linebacker Matt Robinson said of the possession difference. "We were just trying to fight. We just got lazy in our run fits and weren't keying late, and that hurt us."
The Terrapins made several defining mistakes, in addition to Brown's interceptions and Likely's muff. Receivers Etta-Tawo and Marcus Leak had costly drops. While Maryland trailed by two points in the second quarter, Anthony Nixon tried to stick Michigan State's Keith Mumphery a few yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Nixon whiffed, and Mumphery took off for a 62-yard gain to the Maryland 3-yard line. Jeremy Langford would soon score, and the game was never within one possession again. Along with the Williamson pick-six, the Terps described Mumphery's chunk play as an especially deflating moment.
"We had a 9-7 ballgame with less than [five] minutes to go in the first half. We are playing really solid defensively, and then we give up the big play," Edsall said
Maryland kept Michigan State within arm's reach for a while, but the Spartans' superior talent was insurmountable in light of the errors the Terps committed. That Maryland could have beaten the country's No. 12 team – but didn't because of offensive incompetence and a pile of individual mistakes – ate at Edsall afterward.
"That's the thing that's challenging as a coach," Edsall said. "When you see guys do it right a number of times, but then when you see them doing things and you just sit there and shake your head and you say, ‘Where did that come from?' That's the thing that's frustrating as a coach."