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Maryland’s defensive line has a daunting task against No. 8 Michigan State

The only way to beat Michigan State is by stopping the elite Kenneth Walker III.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Time is running out for Maryland football to pick up that elusive sixth win.

The Terps, who entered last Saturday with a 5-3 record, came up short once again in a game against a ranked team after it fell 31-14 to then-No. 22 Penn State in College Park on Nov. 6. Maryland has dropped all three of its games to top-25 opponents this season, and two of the three games remaining left in the regular season will be against ranked programs as well.

Despite picking up its fourth loss of 2021, though, Maryland should be taking away one big positive from that loss that should be of major help this week against Michigan State.

The Nittany Lions may have torched the Terps for 363 yards through the air with three passing touchdowns. They also may have received a scintillating performance from star wide receiver Jahan Dotson who finished with 242 yards and all three scores. However, Maryland’s improvement on defense was most noticeable at the line of scrimmage.

The defensive line, and most importantly the run defense, were both more than serviceable. In fact, that aspect of the defense may just have been the most effective in the matchup with Penn State.

The Nittany Lions only scored seven points after the first half and just 14 points through three quarters. A big reason as to why that was the case was due to the stout run defense that forced James Franklin’s sixth-ranked scoring offense in the Big Ten to become a much more one-dimensional attack.

Maryland’s defensive line did an excellent job clogging up any kind of running lanes as Penn State finished with 33 rushes for 93 yards in total. That’s just 2.8 yards per carry, a major shift from what opponents were previously doing to the Maryland defense on the ground.

“The interior part of our defense, those guys do a great job of playing with leverage, they play with a motor,” head coach Michael Locksley said of the defensive line.

Sophomore running back Keyvone Lee was Penn State’s leading rusher on the day, collecting 50 yards on eight carries. Outside of Lee, though, the defensive line shut down just about every other back. The remaining backs and counted rush attempts from Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford accounted for 25 carries and just 43 yards. Maryland also successfully prevented the Nittany Lions from punching in a rushing touchdown.

But it wasn’t just the effectiveness in the ground game that made it seem as though this defensive line is turning the corner.

Clifford was pressured on plenty of his pass attempts and he never seemed to have time to throw. He was constantly on the move, and Maryland’s players on the defensive line were in constant pursuit of the veteran, flushing him out of the pocket on quite a few occasions.

For the second straight week, Maryland recorded at least three sacks. Senior defensive lineman Greg Rose snagged two of them, while junior defensive lineman Tyler Baylor notched his first sack of the year.

The work at the line of scrimmage to overpower the Nittany Lions’ offensive line was much needed as the Terps really fell off in the past few weeks with defending the run and applying pressure to the quarterback during Maryland’s three-game losing streak before it took down Indiana.

“I thought we played the run well against Penn State... but the flip side of it is we gave up a bunch of yards in the passing game,” head coach Michael Locksley said. “If you look at us the last three or four weeks... we knew they wanted to run the ball and we didn’t effectively stop them from doing that,” Locksley said about the run defense, specifically mentioning the game against Minnesota.

And Locksley didn’t skip a beat with what he said about the program’s defense when its opponents opted to go to the ground over the previous four games. Dating back to Maryland’s first loss of the season, back on Oct. 1 against Iowa, the Terps gave up 145, 166, 326 and then 204 rushing yards, respectively, leading up to its matchup with Penn State.

Maryland then surrendered just 93 rushing yards to the Nittany Lions, a resounding success for a group that was beatable on the ground for a full month.

It’s a good sign for the Terps that the defensive line is starting to find its footing because the next challenge at hand is an intimidating one. Maryland will travel to East Lansing, Michigan on Saturday for an afternoon matchup with the 8-1 Michigan State Spartans.

And who awaits Maryland’s suddenly redeemed defensive line and rush defense? None other than junior running back Kenneth Walker III. If you aren't aware of Walker by now, you have missed a lot. The star running back has elevated his game to one that has elicited Heisman Trophy talk as he has risen through the ranks of the Big Ten backs to become a nearly unstoppable force on the ground.

It’s not so far off to say that Walker is the best non-quarterback in the country. The Spartans’ top back has propelled Michigan State into becoming one of the most efficient run offenses in the nation, helping it transform into a top-four rushing team in the conference. Walker is by far and wide the best back in the Big Ten at the moment as he has compiled 1,330 yards on 197 attempts for an average of 6.8 yards per carry. His 15 touchdowns and his 147.8 rushing yards per game rank first among Big Ten running backs.

His combination of precision cutbacks, elite vision and ability to explode even after facing contact is what makes him such a nightmare for opposing defenses.

“The running back they have is a really special player,” Locksley said of Walker. “They do great job of utilizing him as he obviously leads the Big Ten and one of the best offenses in the Big Ten as well. When you look at him, he has 1,300 yards rushing... I think he has over 900 yards after contact which means he’s one of those guys that you better bring all your pads and all your friends when you tackle him because he’s got great contact balance.”

“He’s the guy that we’ve gotta try to take out of the game plan this week.”

This upcoming meeting with the Spartans and Walker has a very similar feel to the Minnesota game in which Maryland lost 34-16 back on Oct. 23. Maryland had two weeks to prepare for a team they knew would try to pound the ball on the ground, yet, the Golden Gophers ran all over the Terps.

Maryland knows exactly what they are getting into with Michigan State. It’s not a very well-kept secret that Walker will be the Spartans’ focal point on offense after the back has received at least 23 carries in seven of his nine games this season.

It certainly won’t be an easy task, but Maryland’s improvement on the defensive line from last week will need to carry over into Saturday’s game. Keeping Penn State under the century mark in rushing yards is a step in the right direction, and the men up front on the defensive side for Maryland will need to produce another solid effort if the program has a chance to pull off a massive upset win on the road.

“I expect those guys to just keep bringing energy, keep setting the tone up front, you know, they get a lot of displacement,” sophomore cornerback Tarheeb Still said. “They’re playing really good, so I just hope that keeps going into this week.”

Improvement at the line of scrimmage is coming at a critical moment of the season for Maryland. Only time will tell if the defensive line will be up to the daunting task ahead of it when it travels to face Walker and the Spartans.

“It’ll be a great road test for us, it’s always tough as I say to win on the road, especially in the Big Ten,” Locksley said. “I do know this, our kids will show up. They’ve showed up every week, they practice the way we need to practice... we’ve got to get our players to play to the best of their ability this Saturday and give ourselves a chance to do something special which is still to get to that sixth win, which allows us to become bowl eligible.”