- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 13, 2021

Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III came into Saturday’s game against Maryland heralded as a Heisman Trophy contender. But it was his quarterback, Payton Thorne, who stole the show and played like one.

The sophomore Spartan was 22 of 30, throwing for 287 yards and four touchdowns, as Maryland’s secondary was dominated for the second straight week in a 40-21 loss to No. 8 Michigan State.

Thorne’s only blemish was a heave on the final play of the first half that was intercepted by junior safety Nick Cross, Maryland’s first forced turnover since Sept. 25 against Kent State.

Walker did get his touches, a career-high 30 of them to be exact, and finished with 143 yards and two touchdowns.

“We felt like we could win the game if we forced them to pass the ball,” said Maryland graduate defensive end Sam Okuayinou. “We’ve got to look at the tape, see what went wrong and see what happened.”

The Terrapins (5-5, 2-5 Big Ten) fell to 0-27 against ranked teams since joining the Big Ten Conference in 2014. Maryland’s secondary experienced some of the same problems as they did in last week’s loss to Penn State. Terp defenders either took too long to turn their heads in man coverage to what Thorne was doing or didn’t even look at all.

“When we committed to play man coverage, we knew they were going to run the ball and take shots,” said Maryland head coach Mike Locksley. “When you see a guy come open and you’re playing man coverage, you immediately know that somebody got nosy, somebody tried to do too much instead of being locked in on your guy.”

Maryland rushed for 101 yards, breaking the century mark for the first time in six games. The Terps were without senior running back Challen Faamatau, who did not play due to an injury. 

Penalties were again an issue for the Terps as they have been for most of the season. Maryland committed 13 of them for 93 yards, with eight of those coming in the first half, all by the defense.

“A lot of penalties we got were pre-snap penalties,” Okuayinou said. “We can’t really go on their commands. We’ve gotta watch the ball be snapped before we get off.”

Michigan State (9-1, 6-1) entered the game with the worst passing defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision, allowing 326.7 yards per game. Maryland junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa was able to string together moments of success against the Spartans, throwing for 350 yards and two touchdowns, both to senior tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo.

But Tagovailoa fell back into a pattern that’s been similar for most of his games against Big Ten schools this year: A steady, if not spectacular, first half that’s followed by offensive breakdowns and mistakes at key moments in the second half. This time, it included three intentional grounding calls and a red-zone interception.

“We made plays from the 20 to the 20,” Locksley said, “but it’s going to be really important if we’re going 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.”

A dimension of Tagovailoa that hasn’t been used enough by Locksley — his feet — set up Maryland’s first score. On a third down near the end of the first quarter, he took the football on an end-around run for 47 yards to the Spartan four. That set up Peny Boone for a four-yard touchdown to get Maryland within six, 13-7.

Maryland only had seven plays in the second quarter, as Michigan State dominated first half possession, 20:18 to 9:24. Tagovailoa, though, only needed four of them on the Terrapins’ second touchdown drive. The junior led Maryland 80 yards in 46 seconds just before halftime, finishing with a 32-yard pass to Okonkwo to go into the break down 27-14.

Maryland kept their momentum coming out of halftime with the ball, but just after Tagovailoa completed his seventh pass in a row to reach the MSU red zone, he was picked off at the goal line by Spartan linebacker Noah Harvey.

“It’s just like a sick feeling in your stomach knowing that we probably should have won the game if we didn’t leave like 21 points in the red zone,” Okonkwo said.

After trading touchdowns on back-to-back drives, Maryland created what could have been the game’s turning point. Senior nose tackle Ami Finau punched the ball out of tight end Tyler Hunt’s hands on the Spartans’ next offensive play, and sophomore cornerback Tarheeb Still’s recovery gave Maryland the ball inside the 30.

With a prime opportunity to get within six points, Tagovailoa and freshman running back Colby McDonald got Maryland to within two yards of a touchdown. But a full-house Michigan State blitz on third-and-goal forced an intentional grounding by Tagovailoa, and a 40-yard field goal try by senior kicker Joseph Petrino was missed wide right. Walker would tally his second touchdown on MSU’s initial drive of the fourth quarter to put the game away.

“When I talk about our attention to detail, it’s going to be really important for our players, especially when you get it down into the red zone area, that we do it exactly how we’re coached to do it,” Locksley said. “Again, this is the second week in a row that our red zone offense didn’t help us in terms of finishing with touchdowns.”


• George Gerbo can be reached at ggerbo@washingtontimes.com.

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