Maryland football doomed by a slow start to No. 8 Michigan State

(Photo Courtesy of Maryland Athletics.)

Prior to this contest, there was a concern, from head coach Michael Locksley, of Maryland football’s ability to force teams to play “left-handed” — or out of their comfort zone. Against Michigan State, Locksley’s philosophy took a special precedent, especially with the services of Heisman candidate running back Kenneth Walker III, who was expected to have a huge game.

Occasionally, Maryland forced that left-handed play Locksley was looking for, but Michigan State proved to be ambidextrous — to the point where its run-first approach often turned into a pass-first playstyle.

It was instead Maryland who was caught playing with its non-dominant hand early and relying on the ground game on the road. It was a wrong-footed start that ultimately put the Terps in an inescapable, two possession crevice. A slow start and subsequent missed opportunities gave Maryland (5-5, 2-5 B1G) its fifth loss of the season to No. 8 Michigan State (8-1, 6-1 B1G) on a 40-21 scoreline.  

“For us to win against a quality opponent like we had to today, there’s very little margin of error for us,” Locksley said, “so we’ve got to do a better job of our attention to detail and, you know, to give ourselves a chance. But [I’m] really proud of the effort just disappointing the attention to detail.”

As Michigan State jumped out of the gates with two touchdowns with well over 100 passing yards and just 28 rushing yards from Walker, the Terps were suffering through a slew of dropped passes and a bit of a one-dimensional air-attack in which only Rakim Jarrett took the bulk of the production. 

Of the 50 yards that Maryland started the game with, Jarrett and his six catches granted the Terps 44. And for the majority of the half, Darryl Jones with his additional six yard reception was  the only other catch with positive yardage. 

The Terps two scoring drives ended up being the only series with meaningful yardage in a strange first half.

The first came after the Spartans scored their second touchdown pass. Running back Peny Boone finished a job started by Tagovailoa on the ground. After a 45-yard quarterback keeper, Boone, a Michigan native, completed his homecoming performance with a thunderous four yard touchdown rush.

The second came in the closing minutes of the opening half. A perfect, methodical, four-play, 80-yard drive gave Maryland some life after Michigan State had just finished scoring 14 straight — a run that included its third touchdown pass and Walker’s first rushing score. 

Throughout the surgical drive, the ball never touched the ground and flew into the hands of four wide open receivers, resulting in a more manageable 14-27 deficit to end the first half. The touchdown recipient was a an uncontested Chigoziem Okonkwo on a deep seam route.

The second half, while unlike the 30 minutes before it, prompted similar results. Michigan State got in touch with its ground game and Maryland began to prosper in the air. But only the home team prevailed. 

The Terps never came within possession of the Spartans. Tagovailoa rapidly surpassed his first half passing totals and connected with six new targets — including Okonkwo who registered a eight reception 112 yard night with two touchdowns — en route to a finish with 350 yards in the air, but turnovers and failed opportunities supplanted the Terps. Penalties hurt the visitors as well, Maryland was issued a staggering 13 flags that set it back 93 yards. 

One head scratching interception pass by Tagovailoa in the opening drive of the third quarter and a failed fourth down conversion in the fourth quarter proved to be the most consequential — both plays halted drives that could have potentially cut the Spartan lead down to at least seven points. 

“It’s just like a sick feeling in your stomach knowing that he probably should have won the game,” Okonkwo said, “It’s really just a sick feeling. Just sitting on the sideline knowing that you beat yourself.”

Meanwhile, Michigan State opted to feed the ball to Walker and combine its left-handed attack with a tried and true dose of its Heisman hopeful. Walker pounded his way to a 143 yard game while quarterback Payton Thorne manufactured an efficient 287 yard four touchdown performance. His touchdown mark tied his season high.

“We got to get that sixth win in these next two weeks,” defensive lineman Sam Okuayinonu said. “We finished strong … we need to play hard play relentless, but we also gotta play smart and that’s a piece of we [have] to work on.”