Bob Wojnowski, Angelique S. Chengelis and Matt Charboneau preview the UM-Penn State and MSU-Maryland games. The Detroit News, The Detroit News
By the time Michigan State rolls into College Park, Md., late Saturday morning, the focus on Maryland’s campus might actually turn to the football game.
It’s hardly been the case most of the week as the Terrapins program has been embroiled in plenty of off-the-field drama, all stemming from the tragic death last summer of offensive lineman Jordan McNair, who suffered heatstroke during a team workout and eventually died on June 13.
Coach DJ Durkin had been on leave since before the season as the incident was being investigated. In the meantime, offensive coordinator Matt Canada was running the program and had the Terrapins moving toward bowl eligibility and coming off a win last week over Illinois when it rolled up more than 700 yards of total offense.
But on Tuesday, with the results of the investigation in, the Board of Regents decided to reinstate Durkin, creating a massive outpouring of campus anger, frustration and dismay. It was reported that several players walked out of a meeting with Durkin, casting plenty of doubt on whether the Terps would be ready to play a game on Saturday.
By Wednesday, however, the university reversed its decision and opted to fire Durkin. It has hardly made everything business as usual within the team as it was reported two players were involved in a fight over their allegiance to each coach.
“I definitely did want justice for Jordan,” Maryland offensive lineman Johnny Jordan told the Washington Post on Wednesday evening. “I think the right decision was made for justice for Jordan and for everything to be easier for us as players.”
So, by noon on Saturday at Maryland Stadium, there’s no telling what the mindset of the Terrapins will be.
For Michigan State, the key will be focusing on the opponent on the field. A victory would make the Spartans (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten) bowl-eligible and have them building momentum down the stretch with a shot at winning the Big Ten East a longshot but still a possibility.
“Opportunity to go 6-3 playing against a team that's 5-3, as well, and be a good challenge for us as we go ahead,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “You look at Maryland right now, you look at their offensive personnel, they have a very explosive team A lot of big-play guys, 700-plus yards this past week and you see a lot of guys making a lot of plays. It's a challenge for us. Explosive, explosive football team.”
That explosiveness will be the focus for Michigan State. At least, trying to contain it will be what the Spartans attempt to accomplish.
Last week, Maryland (5-3, 3-2) gained 712 total yards and ran for 431. It’s that rushing attack that has the attention of Michigan State. The Terrapins are averaging 246.3 yards a game, which ranks second in the Big Ten and 11th nationally.
“They are a team that relies on explosive plays,” junior linebacker Joe Bachie said. “They are not a team that has done a good job of making eight- or 10-play drives. They usually score in a couple of plays and make a huge run. In a couple of games that they lost, the run got shut down because those defenses stayed disciplined.”
Two weeks ago against Iowa was one of those examples. The Hawkeyes shut out the Terps and limited them to just 115 total yards.
Michigan State, which has the best run defense in the nation, believes it can do the same.
“I think it’s something that our guys up front are looking forward to, and something guys on the back end are looking forward to,” senior safety Khari Willis said. “I’m sure it's something they (Maryland) are looking forward to. That’s what they hang their hat on.”
Maryland has had four different players run for more than 100 yards in a game this season and will use just about anyone on offense to run the ball, including receivers and quarterback Kasim Hill.
“There’s a lot of window dressing,” said Willis. “They motion a lot of guys, shift a lot of guys, move them around. They try and get your eyes in the wrong place and then they try to gut you.”
All of that window dressing has been a focus this week for the Michigan State defense. Staying disciplined, as Bachie said, will be the key for a defense that said its goal last week against Purdue was to return to the basic approach of stopping the run.
In the two previous games against Penn State and Michigan, the Spartans gave up their share of big plays in the running game. They think they’ve gotten past that, something that will be tested at Maryland.
“It's a challenge just like we had last week and that's why we're preparing for all the inside outside zones and the ability to run jet sweeps and all the different personnel that can do it,” defensive tackles coach Ron Burton said. “I mean, whoever's in the game gets an opportunity. They move those guys around and it is a great challenge and we make sure we have to be disciplined and create great leverage on the field with our defense.”