A Michigan State and Michigan gauntlet awaits, and the margin for error is quite thin if Maryland football (5-4, 2-4 B1G) hopes to play in the postseason. That sixth win is as elusive as ever, and in order for it to be captured, the Terps need to make the proper adjustments.
Chief among those corrections is the ability to force teams out of their comfort zone.
“For us, for me as the leader, our job is to take away their best players and force them to play left-handed or for someone else to beat us,” head coach Michael Locksley said.
In nearly every defeat Maryland has been dealt, the opponent decisively finds a way to do what it does best.
After an unfortunate string of events that led to a loss against then-No. 5 Iowa, Maryland (without Jakorian and Kenny Bennett) lost to then-No. 7 Ohio State’s air raid. A week after the defeat to the Buckeyes, Minnesota exploited a tepid edge defense to comfortably rush for over 300 yards. And most recently, then-No. 22 Penn State utilized its familiar style of play and had a field day at the shell with Sean Clifford and Jahan Dotson connecting for over 242 yards and three touchdowns in the passing game.
A Penn State win could have propelled Maryland into a late-season stride and opened the door for postseason football, but with a tough loss and just three regular season games left, the Terps are looking at something much different.
Without any real momentum and with the urgency to win at an astronomical level, the Terps now are stuck with a brand new challenge of taking away a facet of play they have yet to prove they can stop.
No. 8 Michigan State (8-1, 5-1 B1G) — who finished 2-5 last season — has emerged as a surprise for Big Ten rivals and Spartan faithful alike, and running back Kenneth Walker III is the engine that makes the Michigan State train go.
“And we’ve got to do the same thing this week,” Locksley said in regard to the tactic of forcing the opponent’s left hand, “which will be a tough task because of the type of talent that Kenneth Walker III has and how they utilize him.”
The Spartans’ running back is a Heisman trophy hopeful and sits only behind Alabama quarterback Bryce Young as a favorite to win the award. His campaign to rise up the ranks, while unexpected, has been nothing short of impressive.
Walker’s 1,330 yards and 15 touchdowns on the season so far lead the Big Ten by a considerable margin — 393 yards and three touchdowns, respectively. His yard per game average (147.8) and overall yardage are also the best in the country. He also has a remarkable Heisman moment under his belt with a staggering, five touchdown, 197-yard performance against state rival, Michigan.
“[Walker]’s the guy that we’ve gotta try to take out of the game plan this week,” Locksley said.
The Spartans dropped their first game to Purdue last week, but Walker still delivered with a 142 yard, single touchdown performance.
Maryland’s defensive weakness in the ground game will be exploited by the Heisman hopeful, and the response has to be a proper, penalty-free concerted defensive effort that includes gap coverage at the line and solid linebacker play in the second level or an emphatic offensive assault so overwhelming the Spartans are forced to play differently — or both — for the scoreboard to resemble anything close to a victory for Maryland.
Adjustments matter in this Week 11 matchup more than any other so far this season. To play in and be competitive in a conference as stacked as the Big Ten, means the Terps have to hang with some of the best college football teams in the nation. For Maryland, putting up a fight against Walker and the Spartans would be the perfect indicator of improvement.
“I do know this, our kids will show up,” Locksley said. “They’ve showed up every week … we’ve got to get our players to play to the best of their ability this Saturday and give ourselves a chance to do something special — which is still to get to that sixth win which allows us to become bowl eligible.”