Maryland's rushing attack is next test for Michigan State defense

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

When a team rolls up 63 points and 700-plus yards in one week, it’s not a real shock when one of their players is named the Big Ten’s Offensive Player of the Week.

That’s the position Maryland and sophomore running back Javon Leake are in after last week’s 63-33 victory over Illinois. In fact, Leake was also named Special Teams Player of the Week as the Terrapins tuned up for Saturday’s visit from Michigan State.

Michigan State safety Matt Morrisey (10)  had one of the Spartans' three interceptions against Purdue.

Leake is the first player in Big Ten history to earn both awards in the same week. Back in 2016, Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers was defensive player of the week while earning the special teams honor. Leake rushed for 140 yards on five carries and scored three touchdowns while he added a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

More: Michigan State's Rocky Lombardi shares Big Ten freshman honor

It was quite the response for Maryland, which was shut out and gained only 115 total yards the week before against Iowa.

“I’m happy for our players. They deserve to have a night where things work. They deserve to get into a rhythm,” interim coach Matt Canada said. “We obviously haven’t, and everybody knows that. The weather, the teams — there's a lot of really good defenses in this league. There’s a lot of really good teams in this league and good offenses, too.”

Michigan State (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten) has a really good defense, too, and it will be charged with slowing down another offense that is on a roll. Last week, the Spartans held Purdue to just 13 points and nearly 200 yards less than its season average.

Two weeks before that, Michigan State held Penn State, the top-scoring offense in the Big Ten at the time, to 17 points while holding quarterback Trace McSorley to less than 200 yards passing.

More: Michigan State: Five things we learned vs. Purdue

Maryland running back Javon Leake scored four touchdowns against Illinois.

“We are doing a great job coaching,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “(Defensive coordinator Mike) Tressel is doing an outstanding job. Our players, we have got good leadership. We are still a young defense really, which is exciting to see. We have always played good defense here, we really have. If you look back through the years we have played good defense and we sort of rise to a moment sometimes or to a challenge. You saw that happen (Saturday). I am very proud of them.”

Much of the rising this season for Michigan State has been because of the defense. Through the first five games of the season, no opponent had run for more than 63 yards while Northwestern managed just 8 yards on the ground.

But t last two weeks, teams have found room in the running game. Penn State gained 205 yards while Michigan ran for 183. Against Purdue, the Spartans refocused and limited the Boilermakers to 62 yards.

“We felt like the last couple games we gave up too many rushing yards, and that's not in our DNA, that's not who we are,” Tressel said. “We actually went back to Step 1 and Step 2, what they've always been, and that's stop the run and harass the quarterback. Then create turnovers. … Our guys were excited about the challenge, and especially after last week, how difficult that was emotionally. It was good to see our guys minds and emotions in the right place.”

The challenge will be there against the Terrapins. While Maryland (5-3, 3-2) has had its ups and downs, the Terps have been one of the better running teams in the Big Ten.

Entering this weekend’s matchup, Maryland is second in the conference at 246.3 yards a game. And Leake was a revelation as a player deep down the depth chart. The running attack has been led much of the season by redshirt freshman Anthony McFarland and senior Ty Johnson.

But Michigan State feels that after last week’s performance, its defense can compete against any offense.

“It’s just coming back from the adversity last week, we had preached it all week,” junior safety David Dowell said. “Just to be able to come and win and get back on the right track, I was really proud of that.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau