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Maryland football’s defense falters again in 40-21 loss to No. 8 Michigan State

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The Terps gave up nearly 500 yards on Saturday.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Maryland football was holding onto its comeback hopes down 34-21 in the third quarter against No. 8 Michigan State and it was driving down the field after defensive lineman Ami Finau made a brilliant play just a few snaps prior.

Finau forced a fumble, which was recovered by sophomore cornerback Tarheeb Still, and then Maryland desperately needed to put points on the board. The turnover placed the Terps near scoring territory and they quickly worked their way near the Spartans’ end zone.

Maryland had a first-and-goal from the two-yard line, however, the Terps failed to score a touchdown. An intentional grounding flag on third down pushed Maryland back, then it proceeded to miss the field goal to make it come up empty on the drive.

Maryland’s inability to chip into its third-quarter deficit led to an eventual defeat as it fell 40-21 in East Lansing, Michigan on Saturday evening. Maryland drops to 5-5 on the season and 1-3 on the road, while Michigan State improves to 9-1 on the season.

“Credit there to Mel [Tucker] and Michigan State, well-deserving of the victory,” head coach Michael Locksley said. “As I told our team, proud of the effort, but obviously disappointed with some of the attention to detail... we’re really close, but for us to win against a quality opponent like we had today, there’s very little margin of error for us.”

With the loss, the Terps are officially running out of time to capture their sixth win of the season that would make them eligible for a bowl game. Maryland has just two games remaining, with matchups coming against Michigan next week and Rutgers on Nov. 27. It’ll still take the 5-5 Terps one more victory to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2016.

The Spartans pulled a rabbit out of their hat to jumpstart the action in the opening quarter.

Quarterback Payton Thorne handed off the ball to a back on first down, then received a flea flicker with the clear intention of taking a deep shot against a vulnerable secondary. Thorne did just that and rifled the ball down the field, and it eventually fell in the arms of wide receiver Montorie Foster, who finished off the 52-yard pass by tumbling into the end zone.

The Spartans were up just a minute and 17 seconds into the game, taking it 82-yards on their opening drive in just three plays to go up 7-0.

Maryland’s ineffectiveness on offense opened the door for Michigan State to extend its first-quarter lead. Junior running back Kenneth Walker III, who came into the game with 1,330 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns, rattled off a few big runs to put Michigan State in business. Soon after, Thorne connected with Jayden Reed for his second touchdown of the day from 29-yards out to bring the Spartans’ advantage to 13-0 after a missed extra point.

The Terps went without a point on their opening three drives, while Michigan State managed two touchdowns on its first three possessions.

The offense’s inability to put points on the board halted Maryland’s first-quarter success, but that changed late. Jarrett returned to the field and converted on a big passing play, which was then followed by a 45-yard run on a massive third down play from Tagovailoa. Boone then got the call on the four-yard line and punched it in to cut Maryland’s deficit on the scoreboard to 13-7.

Michigan State then capitalized on its next drive to counteract Maryland’s comeback effort. The Spartans chewed the clock and used 10 plays to get into the red zone, then Thorne bursted up the middle on a quarterback sneak on a fourth-and-one to keep the chains moving around Maryland’s three-yard line. Thorne then tossed his third touchdown of the day on a play-action fake to Walker, which eventually went into the hands of tight end Connor Heyward.

Maryland quickly found itself down 20-7 in the second quarter after Heyward’s touchdown.

Thorne was on fire for the Spartans and tearing through Maryland’s secondary, just as a few other Big Ten quarterbacks had done the month prior. He had 123 passing yards and three touchdowns with just over eight minutes left in the second frame. Walker hadn’t been much of a factor up to that point, but Thorne’s excellence propelled Michigan State to a big advantage on the scoreboard.

Michigan State was relentless offensively as a one-yard touchdown from Walker brought the score to 27-7 in the Spartans’ favor with under two minutes left in the first half.

Maryland did show some life, however, after giving up four touchdowns in the first two quarters. Tagovailoa connected on deep passes to freshman Marcus Fleming, then senior Carlos Carriere to put the Terps in good field position. Tagovailoa then tossed a dart to tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo for a 32-yard touchdown to end the first half.

The Terps gave up nearly 300 yards of offense to the Spartans, but they trailed by just 13 going into the break.

Maryland got the first possession coming out of halftime and it looked as though the Terps could crawl back into the game. Tagovailoa masterfully eluded a few defenders while running out of the pocket and fired a bullet to Jarrett for 26 yards to enter the Spartans’ territory, however, Tagovailoa’s costly interception gave the ball right back to Michigan State early in the third quarter.

“This is a second week in a row where I thought the second half, where we had some opportunities to cut it to a one possession game and kind of keep it right there in the hip pocket to give ourselves a chance late in the game,” Locksley said.

Michigan State used the momentum off the turnover and turned it into even more magic on offense. The Spartans went down the length of the field in just over three minutes, and their drive was capped off by Thorne’s fourth passing touchdown of the evening. Thorne found Reed again from three yards away as Michigan State ballooned its advantage to 34-14.

Okonkwo, one of the bright points for Maryland, built off his brilliant 12-catch, 85-yard performance from the last game even further after he added a highlight-reel play for Maryland later in the third quarter. The tight end leaped over a Spartan en route to his acrobatic 32-yard touchdown, his second touchdown of the day from the same distance.

Finau then made a huge play for Maryland on the ensuing drive.

The senior stripped a Spartan running back, gifting the ball back to the Terps in a favorable field position. However, despite the sudden spark, Maryland couldn't add to its point total, handing the ball back to Michigan State still trailing 34-21 over halfway through the third quarter.

Maryland turned the ball over on downs early in the fourth quarter while still facing a 13-point deficit. A mix of drops and poor offensive line play, which haunted Maryland all evening, stunted the Terps’ drive yet again.

Walker scored his second touchdown of the game on a three-yard rush with just over 10 minutes in the fourth quarter. Michigan State hit the 40-point mark at that point, the third time this season Maryland has conceded at least that many in a single game.

Maryland’s offense wouldn't find the end zone the rest of the way, eventually falling 40-21 on the road for the program’s fifth loss of the season.

“Props to them, but... we really feel like we just beat ourselves at the end there and it’s a sick feeling,” Okonkwo said.

Three things to know

1. The Terps’ defense conceded over 30 points yet again. Maryland’s defense has been torn apart by quality Big Ten opponents this season and this game with the Spartans was no different. Maryland gave up 51 to Iowa, 66 to Ohio State, 34 to Minnesota, 35 to Indiana and 31 to Penn State. It’s been a season of injuries and defensive lapses for this Maryland team and Michigan State's offense provided another challenge for this defense. Michigan State finished the game with 40 points, the third-highest point total the Terps have surrendered this season

2. Jarrett and Okonkwo paced Maryland’s pass catchers. After a few weeks of rotating as to who led Maryland’s pass catchers, this time it was Jarrett that received the bulk of the workload receptions-wise. The sophomore wide receiver finished with a team-high 10 catches for 105 yards on the evening. He amassed a team-high 14 targets in the loss. Okonkwo was just behind Jarrett, hauling in eight receptions for an even greater 112 yards along with two touchdowns.

3. Maryland’s struggle against ranked opponents continues. Similar to the games against then-No. 5 Iowa and then-No. 7 Ohio State, Maryland fell behind early and couldn't recover. The loss marked the Terps’ fourth straight loss to ranked opponents in 2021. The Terps have now lost to Iowa, Ohio State, then-No. 22 Penn State and Michigan State. It’s been a tough season for the Terps against the elite teams in the Big Ten and those struggles have a good chance to continue next week when Maryland faces another talented ranked opponent in Michigan. It’s beginning to look like it’ll be a battle of the five-win programs when Maryland travels to face Rutgers on Nov. 27.

“We trying to send all of our seniors out the right way, we got to get this sixth win in these next two weeks,” graduate student defensive lineman Sam Okuayinonu said.