Trailing by 13, Maryland’s offense was marching down the field to begin the second half. Maryland reached MSU territory in three plays and seemed poised to cut the deficit to one score.
On second and three from MSU’s 31, Maryland redshirt sophomore quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa threw a jump ball to senior tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo, who was matched up with MSU redshirt senior linebacker Noah Harvey. Harvey was not able to get his head around and plowed through Okonkwo and picked up a pass interference penalty. The 15-yard infraction moved Maryland inside the MSU redzone to set the Terrapins up with a solid scoring opportunity.
However, MSU stood its ground on the next play. Tagovailoa threw a strike over the middle towards the endzone right into the chest of Harvey, who started today in place of junior linebacker Quavaris Crouch at linebacker. Harvey held onto the ball for an interception, MSU’s only forced turnover today and the biggest moment of the game.
“Everything's not gonna always go your way, but you keep playing the next play and you focus on what you have to do when you execute,” Michigan State football Head Coach Mel Tucker said about Harvey’s interception. “And he's played in games before, he's been there. He's a very important part of our defense and a very important player on our team.”
The quick turnaround from Harvey after a crucial mistake was a microcosm of the performance of Michigan State’s defense from last week to now. After getting thrashed through the air by Purdue, MSU answered the call with timely stops this week to help fuel MSU’s victory over Maryland.
Michigan State began the game by forcing three punts on Maryland’s first three possessions of the game. The Spartans’ ability to get stops in the first quarter gave redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne and MSU’s offense plenty of time to jump out to a two-touchdown lead halfway through the first quarter.
However, MSU’s defense did not deliver a truly suffocating performance. The Terrapins were able to manufacture three lightning-quick touchdown drives on the back of huge chunk plays through the air. Maryland’s longest scoring drive in terms of time of possession was just 1:52 and two of Maryland’s touchdown drives took less than a minute to drive 60 or more yards.
Outside of the quick-hitting touchdown drives, MSU stood strong against Maryland’s torrid passing attack, especially in the closing moments of the game. Maryland’s final four drives ended in a missed field goal and three turnovers on downs resulting in zero points.
Michigan State gave up 447 yards of offense to the Terrapins but were able to get off the field in the redzone and on third and fourth down, giving the offense enough chances with the ball to score 40 or more points for the third time this year. Maryland only scored on three of its 12 possessions despite moving the ball into MSU territory on eight of its drives.
A big part of the improvement defensively from last week to this week was MSU’s ability to get off the field on third down. Against Purdue, MSU could not stop a Boilermaker drive, allowing them to convert 61.1% of its third downs (11-18). Today, MSU dialed up blitz after blitz on third down to speed up Tagovailoa’s decisions with the ball.
The results were significant for the Spartans. Maryland only converted three of its 13 third downs today and were 2-5 on fourth downs. When MSU needed a stop the most, the defense answered.
“Something I think our defense does well, when we make a point of emphasis on something I think we get better at it,” senior safety Xavier Henderson said. "And I think they went like three for 13 is what I heard on third down so we put some time in the film room.”
A week after third down stops were MSU’s Achilles heel, Tucker applauded Defensive Coordinator Scottie Hazelton and the rest of the coaching staff after the game for attacking MSU’s third down issues head-on this week during practice.
“My hat goes off to Scottie and staff on digging in and just finding solutions to the issues and then preparing the players,” Tucker said.
Michigan State’s secondary led the effort today. Henderson, redshirt freshman cornerback Marqui Lowery and senior safety Darius Snow had a team-high seven tackles. Snow said that it’s easy for MSU’s secondary to be aggressive against ball carriers because they focus on tackling in practice.
“We've always been taught to be tacklers, great tackles in space and great tacklers in the hole,” Snow said. “So the same as coverage, the rush and cover work together to always get 'em on the ground. We all work hard as a group, safeties and corners, and I think it shows on the field.”
Henderson echoed Snow’s statement and added that a good team can be judged by wide receivers’ blocking ability and the cornerbacks’ tacking ability. Both sang high praise for Lowery, who filled in at cornerback for the injured freshman Charles Brantley and had a team-high seven tackles.
“I love a corner that can hit and Marqui will stick his face in the fan,” Snow said with a childish grin.
Michigan State’s defense answered the call a week after it could not time and time again in the loss to Purdue. The effort pushed MSU to 9-1 heading into Columbus next weekend for a date with No. 4 Ohio State for sole possession of first place in the Big Ten East.
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“November is championship football,” Henderson said. “I'm blessed to be able to be a part of that, a part of something that we're chasing. We put ourselves in a good position to attack our opportunity. It will be a big one next week.”
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