MSU takes fast track to topple Terps, sets course for Columbus
East Lansing — No. 8 Michigan State is prepared to stay in the fight.
The fight, that is, for the Big Ten East Division title, one that will be on the line next week at No. 6 Ohio State, and possibly more beyond that.
The Spartans put themselves in that position Saturday by striking quickly, keeping their foot on the gas and getting some timely plays from their defense on the way to a 40-21 victory over Maryland in front of 67,437 at Spartan Stadium.
“That’s something we preached tremendously,” wide receiver Jayden Reed said. “How attacking early was going to help us out a lot. … Obviously, that helped us out tremendously to start fast. That's what we harped on in the locker room before coming out, and I think that was very important to start super fast.”
Super fast was a good way to describe it as Payton Thorne took a flea-flicker toss from Kenneth Walker III on the third play from scrimmage and hit Montorie Foster with a 52-yard touchdown to take the lead just 1:11 into the game.
“You never want to come off sluggish on either side of the ball,” Thorne said. “We have scripts with that play that we scored on and it was the third play on the script. We got it and our guys executed well. Montorie did a good job getting open and then a good job getting in the end zone.”
It was the sort of start the Spartans had multiple times this season, but it had disappeared the last couple of weeks, particularly in the loss to Purdue.
This time, it never really wavered as Thorne threw for 287 yards and four touchdowns while Reed had eight catches for 114 yards with two scores. Walker ran 30 times for 143 yards and two touchdowns. The defense made a jump, too, getting an interception from linebacker Noah Harvey in the red zone in the second half and allowing Maryland to convert on third down just three times out of 13 attempts.
It proved to be the perfect way to head into Ohio State week, though the Spartans (9-1, 6-1 Big Ten) insist the process won’t change.
“We have a 24-hour rule, and then we'll get ready for the next one,” Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said. “It’s November and we know what's at stake and what the preparation is gong to be. We’ll look at the film and then we’re gonna get ready for the next one. There are some things we need to clean up and we’ll try and get some guys back, and then we'll just keep chopping.
“Two plus two is four. It’s not gonna change. We have a process and we’ll stick with it.”
That process allowed Michigan State to put the Purdue loss in the rearview mirror.
While the offense was balanced and when it did stop was aided by some big punts from Bryce Baringer, the defense was much better. In addition to the third-down stops, the Spartans consistently put pressure on Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, who was sacked four times and hurried, officially, four more times.
The Terrapins QB, who threw for 350 yards and a pair of touchdowns, was also flagged for intentional grounding three times as Michigan State had consistent pressure.
“We made plays from the 20 to the 20,” Maryland coach Mike Locksley said. “But it's going to be really important if you want to win against quality ranked opponents like Michigan State that when we get it down in there we’ve got to come away with touchdowns.”
The Terps (5-5, 2-5) did twice with tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo, who had eight catches for 112 yards. But it wasn’t nearly enough as they couldn’t muster more in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve just been finding ways to win,” said safety Xavier Henderson, who had seven tackles. “Last week, we were in a position where we could have won but we just didn't get enough stops. But November is championship football, and I'm blessed to be able to be a part of that and a part of something that we are chasing. We’ve put ourselves in a good position to have an opportunity with the big one next week in that kind of crazy environment.”
Michigan State did its best to create its own crazy environment with the early touchdown to Foster followed by a 29-yard pass from Thorne to Reed to take a 13-0 lead, the extra point going wide left from freshman Stephan Rusnak, who was in for the injured Matt Coghlin.
Maryland pulled with within 13-7 late in the first quarter on a 4-yard run from Peny Boone, the Detroit King product. Michigan State responded with a 14-play drive that ended with Thorne’s third touchdown pass, a 2-yarder to Connor Heyward to push the lead to 20-7 with 8:11 left in the second quarter.
After forcing a quick punt, Michigan State was marching again, this time on a 13-play drive that ended with Walker’s 1-yard touchdown run to push the lead to 27-7 with 1:42 left in the half. Maryland responded quickly with a four-play drive that lasted just 46 seconds, cutting the deficit to 27-14 on a 32-yard pass from Tagovailoa to Okonkwo.
“We just executed and there weren’t too many busted plays,” Henderson said. “I messed up on that over route before the half. But we’re going to keep working on that and it is fun to see us, when we point something out, we get better at it.”
The defense was better in the second half and came up big early as linebacker Noah Harvey, in for the injured Quavaris Crouch, intercepted a Tagovailoa pass near the goal line then returned it to the MSU 36. The Spartans took advantage as Thorne found Reed with a 3-yard touchdown pass, his fourth of the game, to push the lead to 34-14 with 9:37 left in the third quarter.
The Spartans defense, however, was back to its old self after that, allowing Maryland to score on three plays, a drive that lasted just 56 seconds as Okonkwo grabbed a screen pass and dashed 32 yards to pull within 34-21 with 8:33 left in the third quarter.
After a Michigan State punt, the defense got a fourth-down stop as Ronald Williams broke up a pass. The offense responded as Walker had a 36-yard run, then capped a seven-play drive with a 3-yard touchdown run, his second of the game. It put the Spartans ahead, 40-21, with 10:34 to play, a lead which held after a two-point conversion pass failed.
It mattered little as the defense clamped down, helping set up next week’s showdown with the Buckeyes (9-1, 7-0).
“We have to have a great week of preparation,” Thorne said. “Obviously, we know who we are playing. We know where we are going. It is at their place. On our side of the division, in order to get to Indianapolis, you have to go through Columbus. It is going to be a huge game for us. We are going to have to put a great week of practice together.”