Maryland Coach DJ Durkin doesn’t believe in dwelling on the past, but as he prepared this week for Saturday night’s game against visiting Michigan State, he was constantly reminded of a terrible memory involving the Spartans.
A year ago this week, Durkin was wearing maize and blue as Michigan’s defensive coordinator and left in shock as Michigan State’s Jalen Watts-Jackson returned a fumbled punt attempt 38 yards for a game-winning touchdown as time expired to beat the Wolverines and help catapult the Spartans to a Big Ten championship and an eventual berth in the College Football Playoff.
“That game will go down, I’m sure, for a long time as a memorable game in college football,” Durkin said.
So much has changed. Durkin is midway through his first season as head coach at Maryland, which started with four straight wins to surpass last season’s total in a disastrous 3-9 campaign. The surprisingly swift rebound has since hit a snag with Tuesday’s news of a season-ending knee injury suffered by multi-position standout Will Likely. And consecutive losses to Penn State and Minnesota have left Maryland facing the possibility of a long losing streak in the rugged Big Ten.
Which leads to the more stunning reversal on the opposing sideline: A year after beating Ohio State and Michigan on the road on the way to their fifth season with at least 11 victories in the past six years, the Spartans will arrive in College Park with a four-game losing streak and as only a slight favorite.
The stakes, then, for Saturday night’s prime-time matchup, the first at Maryland Stadium since the same teams met in 2014, are wholly unexpected — each team desperately needs a win in its bid to get to the six victories necessary to ensure a bowl berth. And for Maryland (4-2, 1-2), the defending Big Ten champion could represent its best opportunity before the season finale against lowly Rutgers — the only team other than Michigan State that has yet to win a league game this season.
Maryland’s soft early schedule has given way to a harder road. After Michigan State (2-4, 0-3), the Terrapins likely will be an underdog for a game at Indiana (3-3, 1-2), which beat the Spartans, 24-21, on Oct. 1 and last weekend threatened undefeated Nebraska until the final moments of a 27-22 loss. After that comes a murderer’s row of contests, at No. 3 Michigan, vs. No. 2 Ohio State and at No. 8 Nebraska over three consecutive weeks.
“Especially for us now, after the past few games, you have to fight like a wounded animal. It’s more like your back is up against the wall, their back is up against the wall, and everybody is going to be bringing another intensity level,” said Maryland junior linebacker Jalen Brooks, part of a unit has allowed 69 points over the past two games.
These are certainly odd times in East Lansing, where Michigan State ranks ahead of only Rutgers in the Big Ten in scoring offense (24.2 points per game) and is third to last in scoring defense (30 points allowed per game). Last weekend might have been rock bottom; the Spartans allowed 54 points, the most under Coach Mark Dantonio, in a 14-point home loss to a Northwestern team that entered with the nation’s 112th-ranked scoring offense.
The Spartans also have been hamstrung by the conference’s worst rushing offense (136.2 yards per game) and inconsistent quarterback play a year a year after losing Connor Cook, the winningest quarterback in program history, to the NFL draft. Dantonio listed both Tyler O’Connor and Brian Lewerke as co-starters this week but didn’t rule out the possibility of playing third-stringer Damion Terry.
Dantonio was walking through the halls of the Spartans’ football facility earlier this week — “Spent a lot of time there lately,” he said — looking at the team’s bowl jerseys and reminiscing about all of the players the program has sent to the NFL.
“It just sort of hit me a little bit where we are right now relative to where we’ve been,” said Dantonio, who has led Michigan State to nine consecutive bowl appearances. “I think the most important thing to recognize is that wherever we’re going is to try to get back to that point.”
While the memory of Michigan State’s miracle win over Michigan last season raced through Durkin’s mind at times this week, it had little bearing on his preparation. Maryland is facing a litany of issues after last week’s 31-10 loss to Minnesota, which players and coaches said marked the first time this season that the team lacked the collective gusto Durkin has trumpeted since taking the job last December. Rekindling the fire has been the foremost priority this week — after starting three true freshmen against Minnesota, Durkin kept his depth chart fluid and continued to hold open competition at all positions in preparation for Michigan State.
But Maryland is also facing a string of medical issues. That includes the loss of Likely, the team’s leader and most talented player, as well as senior quarterback Perry Hills, whose status will be a game-time decision after he missed last week’s game against Minnesota with a lingering shoulder injury. If Hills is absent, he would be replaced by true freshman Tyrrell Pigrome, who threw for 161 yards and one touchdown against two interceptions and a lost fumble in his first start against Minnesota.
Even with that attrition, Durkin framed Saturday night’s game as an opportunity for his team to turn around the season. There was no talk of bowl games or the brutal stretch that lies ahead. He also didn’t need to dip into any history lessons — including from his own haunted memory from last year — for his team to understand its wounded opponent.
“It’s pretty clear and well documented, the success that they’ve had there. I think their coaching staff has done a tremendous job. They’re a well-coached team, a well-coached program, and they’ve been consistently good for a good amount of time now,” Durkin said. “They’re having struggles right now with certain things, and so are we.”
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