After all of that, there’s a football game.
It’s been a dramatic, tension-filled roller coaster of a week in at Maryland. The long-awaited decision day on head football coach DJ Durkin came Tuesday, as he was controversially reinstated. Except the school then fired him Wednesday. And the Board of Regents chairman who recommended Durkin’s return resigned Thursday. And school president Wallace Loh is retiring in June. At this point, nobody’s happy with anyone. It took months for the Board to make its decision and it still turned into a complete debacle.
Durkin was Maryland’s coach again for 28 hours. Players walked out of his first meeting back, there was an altercation between punters at Tuesday’s practice and a different group of players did not show up to Wednesday’s practice, after which Durkin was informed of his termination. Matt Canada went from interim head coach to offensive coordinator back to interim head coach during all this.
Anyway ... it’s a home game. And Maryland can clinch bowl eligibility with a win. The Terps face a Michigan State team with three losses on the schedule but a win over Penn State this season. It’s the blackout game, and student body leaders are calling other students to actually show up but who really knows at this point.
Saturday’s game kicks off at noon ET on ESPN2.
Michigan State Spartans (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten)
2017 record: 9-3, 7-2
Head coach Mark Dantonio holds a 105-48 record in his 12th season at Michigan State. He’s the second-winningest coach in program history, just four behind Duffy Daugherty, who took 19 years to reach his 109 wins (Dantonio is fifth in school history in winning percentage. Before East Lansing, Dantionio was the head coach at Cincinnati from 2004-06.
Players to know
Brian Lewerke, RS junior, QB, 6’3/220, No. 14
Rocky Lombardi, RS freshman, QB, 6’3/218, No. 12
Lewerke is in his third year as Michigan State’s quarterback, but his results this season have bee mediocre. He’s completed 56 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. With the redshirt junior out, Lombardi made his first career start last weekend against Purdue and excelled. He went 26-of-46 for 318 yards and two scores in the Spartans’ 23-13 win, earning Big Ten Co-Freshman of the Week. Michigan State hasn’t decided on a starter this weekend.
Kenny Willekes, RS junior, DE, 6’4/260,
Since joining the program as a walk-on in 2015, Willekes has become one of the premier pass rushers in the Big Ten. He leads the Spartans with 5.5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss and 10 quarterback hits this season. Willekes finished last season with seven sacks and 14.5 TFLs, and he’s on his way to exceeding those numbers.
Andrew Dowell, senior, LB, 6’1/225, No. 5.
The senior is second on the team with 55 total tackles this season and has 218 in his four-year career. Dowell is also second on the defense with three sacks and third with three tackles for loss. He’s also impressive in coverage, recording six pass breakups.
Rush defense. The Spartans have allowed the fewest rushing yards in the country this season (just 77.4 per game) and hold opponents to 2.7 yards per carry. The advanced stats back this up, as S&P+ has Michigan State’s rush defense as No. 2 in the FBS and its overall defense at No. 14 (all three teams to beat Maryland this year have been in the top 15). However, the Spartans are susceptible to allowing big plays on the ground, ranking 101st in defensive rushing explosiveness. The Terps’ offense is fourth in that category, so we’ll see if they can take advantage.
Rush offense. On the other side of the ball, Michigan State ranks 121st nationally in rush yards per game (just 107.6) and 110th in rushing S&P+. Senior LJ Scott has missed time with injury, but he hasn’t been too effective when playing either. He and two other backs—Connor Heyward and La’Darius Jefferson—all have between 176 and 201 yards this season, with all three averaging between 3.2 and 3.7 yards per attempt.
Three things to watch
1. How many people show up? Maryland’s stands have been pathetically empty this season, regardless of announced attendance numbers. The student section, which is traditionally full at kickoff and empties out as the game progresses, was as sparse as ever on Saturday. When Durkin was reinstated, students called for a boycott (as if they hadn’t already been doing so subconsciously). SGA president Jonathan Allen sent an email to students urging them to pack Maryland Stadium on Saturday. We’ll see.
2. Can Maryland move the ball? Before the chaos of this week, the Terps’ inconsistent offense seemed like a much more fascinating story. If you missed it, they racked up 63 points and 712 yards of offense last week after totaling just 115 in a shutout the game prior. Maryland has torched bad defenses and been stymied by good ones. Michigan State’s unit is stout, but can it shut the Terps down?
3. Does Ty Johnson play? Another storyline that would be getting much more attention any other week. The senior running back missed the second half of the Illinois game with a strained calf, and Canada said he’d likely be a game-time decision but expected himself to play. Javon Leake scored four touchdowns last week, and Anthony McFarland and Tayon Fleet-Davis have been solid all year, but Maryland will need all the weapons it can get.
Vegas: Michigan State -2.5 (O/U 46)
S&P+: Michigan State 24, Maryland 23
Me: Maryland 24, Michigan State 20