Joe Rexrode is the Michigan State beat writer for the Detroit Free Press. Maryland travels to face No. 13 Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich., this weekend, so Joe was kind of enough to take the time to answer some questions about how the Spartans will rebound from a heartbreaking loss, what makes Connor Cook tick and what makes the front seven strong.
Michigan State is coming off a tough (and controversial) loss against Nebraska last weekend. What kind of impact (both mental and physical) did that game have on the Spartans and how do you expect them to respond against Maryland?
The Spartans were visibly shocked right after the loss, no surprise considering it was their first loss in a year and first loss in a game like that since … well, probably since a controversial home loss to Nebraska in 2012. MSU had won seven straight games decided by a touchdown or less dating back to the lone loss of 2013 (17-13 at Notre Dame). Mark Dantonio's history suggests his team will respond well, he has always been able to get his guys to play after major successes/failures. And in this case, the Big Ten championship remains in his team's control.
Connor Cook is once again turning in an exceptional season with 21 touchdowns to three interceptions. What has made him so good this season and how much does he make the Michigan State offense click
Yeah, he's taken another step as a player this season and performing like a first-round pick. And this offense relies more on him than it ever has, by far – Jeremy Langford, now a rookie running back with the Chicago Bears, gave the Spartans more balance the past two seasons. This team has had a banged-up offensive line (the starters finally played together last week for the first time since early in the second game against Oregon) and a constantly rotating backfield situation that has also been affected by injury. Cook and his receivers are playing high-level football right now to keep things moving. One thing that has always made him good is an ability to shrug off a bad play and atone for it quickly. He did that in winning MVP of the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl as a sophomore. He's big and strong with a big arm. But consistent, pinpoint accuracy eluded him until this season.
What makes wide receivers Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings Jr. tough matchups for opposing cornerbacks? How do they match up with the Maryland secondary?
Well, I'd like to ask you the same thing. I would assume Maryland might throw William Likely on Burbridge and just tell him to hound him all day? I don't know if that fits into what Maryland tries to do defensively. I do know Cook expressed a lot of respect this week for Likely and that Maryland secondary, it limited him as well as anyone last season. Burbridge is a pro, and that was pretty evident even when he was a freshman, but he has finally put it all together. He's not a deep-threat burner but he's extremely quick and strong, and he's catching every 50/50 ball. Kings is more of the slippery YAC guy – witness his first touchdown at Nebraska last week, catching the ball sprinting right, somehow stopping instantly without tearing something, then taking it the other way into the end zone. And junior receiver R.J. Shelton also has emerged as a big factor downfield as well.
Statistically, this season's Michigan State defense isn't quite the same as in past years. It's still a talented unit, but where has it struggled? What's its main strength?
Yeah, it's been a big step down this season for a variety of reasons. MSU's star linebacker, Ed Davis, blew his knee in camp and was lost for the season. That has been followed with the loss of the team's top cornerback (Vayante Copeland, fractured vertebra) and top safety (RJ Williamson, biceps surgery), and starting cornerback Darian Hicks will probably be on the field Saturday for the first time since he got a concussion Oct. 10 at Rutgers. All that said, the supposedly dominant MSU defensive line has not always lived up to its billing. It makes plays but also crucial mistakes. The linebackers have been pretty good. The secondary has been a mess. MSU started three true freshmen, all of whom were supposed to redshirt this season, at Nebraska. There are obvious excuses for the pass defense, but not for a run defense that has sunk to average. The main strength would still be up front, defensive end Shilique Calhoun is having a great year and defensive tackle Malik McDowell makes big plays.
What about Maryland's offense – scheme, players, matchups, anything like that – could cause significant trouble for the Michigan State defense?
Definitely the running aspect of Perry Hills' game. I realize he was replaced last week but he seems like the best bet to give the Spartans trouble in this game. And it appears there's some talent on the outside that can get work done against the MSU secondary – especially if Hills can extend plays the way Tommy Armstrong Jr. did last week.
BONUS QUESTION: This is Maryland's first visit to Michigan State (for football, at least). What should Terps fans making the trip do or see during their weekend in East Lansing?
Michigan is a highly underrated summer vacation spot with all the lake shore and great little towns all around the perimeter of the state. Mid-November in East Lansing, not quite the same effect. I will say a walk around campus is worth the trip, it's a picturesque campus, especially on the northwest side and near the Beaumont Tower. If you're looking for something more modern, the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum on Grand River Avenue – featured in the upcoming Batman vs. Superman movie! – can't be missed. Non-chain food spots, Beggar's Banquet, Peanut Barrel, Crunchy's. Or go to Old Town in Lansing and get awesome barbecue at Meat or breakfast at Golden Harvest. Lots of great places in downtown Lansing as well, near the Capitol building.