Maryland football is 5-3, which means the Terps are one win away from returning to the postseason. They smoked Illinois 63-33 in one of the biggest offensive explosions in school history.
This weekend, Maryland will be at home again as it hosts Michigan State. The Terps and Spartans have split their last two meetings, and they enter the matchup with identical records. Michigan State is a two-point favorite at the moment, making this one of just two Maryland games to have a spread within nine points so far this season (the Terps were a 2.5-point favorite against Minnesota and won by 29).
It’s possible that Maryland gets some answers this week regarding decisions on head coach DJ Durkin and other university officials in the wake of the investigation into the football program’s culture; the report has been released in full. But interim head coach Matt Canada and the Terps know they can’t think about that. They have to focus on football. So we’ll do the same in this piece.
Maryland’s passing game was the best it’s been all season.
Kasim Hill went 11-of-19, his first time completing double-digit passes since Week 1 against Texas. He threw for a career-high 265 yards and three touchdowns. It was a brilliant mix of short, intermediate and deep passes; were it not for a couple drops, Hill’s line could have been even better.
Pro Football Focus graded Hill’s performance as an 87.5 out of 100, easily his best of the season and the highest grade among Big Ten quarterbacks in Week 9.
The highest passing grades from QBs in the Big Ten from Week 9 pic.twitter.com/fd42pwEJiI— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 29, 2018
(This is a weird list to look at, with both Illinois quarterbacks making appearances in the top five. Rivers went 3-of-13 for 45 yards, although his receivers didn’t do him any favors. Anyway...)
Hill and Tyler DeSue (2-of-2 in the last quarter-plus) completed passes to seven different receivers Saturday. Freshmen Dontay Demus (two catches for 69 yards) and Brian Cobbs (two for 37) made their biggest impacts of the season. Fellow rookies Jeshaun Jones and Chigoziem Okonkwo were back in the mix. Junior DJ Turner might be back this week, but it’s clear the Terps have plenty of possible weapons out wide.
We’ve talked about Maryland’s running game plenty here. Saturday’s performance was ridiculous: Javon Leake had 140 yards and three touchdowns on five carries, Jones and Okonkwo each scored long rushing touchdowns, and even walk-on Ikechukwu Ogwuegbu had 60 yards when all was said and done. But if Maryland can continue to open up the field through the air like it did Saturday, the running game becomes that much more dangerous.
This outburst was the continuation of a boom-or-bust season.
It’s been a common theme over the years for Maryland to dominate inferior teams and get dominated by superior ones. But even regardless of opponent level, this season’s Terps have been particularly hit-or-miss, especially after the season-opening win over Texas. From S&P+, here are Maryland’s percentile performances for the last seven games (team percentile in bold, offense and defense in parentheses):
- Week 2 at Bowling Green: 86% (77%, 86%)
- Week 3 vs. Temple: 16% (11%, 36%)
- Week 4 vs. Minnesota: 91% (86%, 92%)
- Week 6 vs. Michigan: 25% (34%, 14%)
- Week 7 vs. Rutgers: 80% (77%, 95%)
- Week 8 at Iowa: 33% (17%, 91%)
- Week 9 vs. Illinois: 82% (85%, 69%)
That’s four performances in the 80th percentile or better, three outings in the 33rd percentile or worse and literally nothing in between. These are opponent-adjusted numbers, so it’s not as simple as playing well against bad teams and falling apart against good ones. This is an extreme version of that.
The commonality between all three teams to beat Maryland this season: a top-notch defense. Michigan’s defense ranks first in S&P+, Iowa’s ranks ninth and Temple’s ranks 15th. Those units are No. 4, No. 3 and No. 1, respectively, in IsoPPP, which measures explosiveness. Of the Terps’ other five opponents, though, the best in that category is Minnesota at 83rd.
That means Maryland—which ranks No. 4 in offensive explosiveness—has faced three defenses that are elite at preventing big plays and five that are below-average. The 5-3 record then speaks for itself.
Michigan State is a difficult team to evaluate in its own right.
Both the Terps and Spartans are 5-3 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten. Michigan State hasn’t been as all-or-nothing in its performances as Maryland, but the results are certainly up and down. The Spartans have a 21-17 win at Penn State, but losses at Arizona State and against Northwestern. Their close Week 1 win over Utah State looks increasingly impressive every week, as the Aggies haven’t lost since.
The Spartans’ defense ranks 14th in S&P+ but 55th in explosiveness. Their rush defense more specifically ranks second, but is 101st in IsoPPP—so if you get past the line, you’ve got a chance at a big run. The pass defense is more average across the board. These inconsistencies make it especially tough to gauge how Maryland will fare against this defense.
S&P+ and ESPN’s football Power Index portray Michigan State in slightly different lights. The former has the Spartans 33rd, while the latter has them 21st. Both systems favor them against Maryland (53 percent according to S&P+, 61.5 percent by FPI).
Still, this is a winnable game for the Terps, who have the chance to clinch bowl eligibility in their first nine games. They did that in 2014 and haven’t reached the six-win plateau in eight contests since 2010. For a team coming off a 4-8 season and dealing with as much off-field adversity as anyone, that’d be an accomplishment worth celebrating.