The pass was doomed the moment it left the right hand of Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown, an ill-advised throw that bounced off the hands of one Michigan State defender and into the waiting arms of Spartans safety R.J. Williamson, who returned the mistake 22 yards for a backbreaking touchdown.
Saturday night was an opportunity for Maryland to beat one of the top-ranked teams in the country, to claim a signature win in its first season as a member of the Big Ten Conference and to build on the interest coming into the game.
Instead, the Terps got very little from Brown and their offense, falling, 37-15, to No. 12 Michigan State despite an impressive early-game performance from their defense before an announced sellout of 51,802.
Maryland (6-4, 3-3 Big Ten) trailed just 16-7 before Brown’s pick-six with 1:06 remaining in the third quarter. The Spartans (8-2, 5-1) then outscored the Terps 14-7 in the fourth quarter, closing out a victory during which they held Maryland’s offense to 159 yards through 3 1/2 quarters and forced four Terps turnovers.
“I thought we had some opportunities tonight to put ourselves in a position to get a win, but we didn’t take advantage of the opportunities we had,” Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. “Going into the game, the one thing we talked about was that we knew we couldn’t turn the ball over. … You can’t do that against a top-15 team and expect to win.”
Brown’s pick-six was the most deflating of the turnovers.
With Maryland facing a first-and-10 at its 10-yard line, Brown misread a coverage and attempted to throw the ball over the middle into a congested area instead of targeting an open Amba Etta-Tawo near the sideline.
Edsall could be seen voicing his frustration to Brown on the sideline as Michigan State defenders celebrated in the end zone.
“He just made a poor decision,” Edsall said. “The defender stayed inside and the throw should have gone outside to Amba on the swing route. He had him and he made a poor decision. He made a poor throw, and that’s what I tried to tell him. You can’t predetermine things. You have to read when you get the ball, read it and throw accordingly. He didn’t, and that hurt us in that situation.”
Brown finished just 20-for-43 for 246 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. He was 12-for-31 for 136 yards with one score and the three interceptions until after Maryland fell behind 30-7 midway through the fourth quarter.
The Spartans also limited the Terps to 6 yards on 17 carries, further frustrating a Maryland running game that has struggled to create yardage since the second game of the season.
“They beat us up front,” Edsall said. “We knew it was going to be tough to run. That’s the thing they predicate their defense on. [They] put a lot of guys in the box and do that. We didn’t do a good enough job getting guys off the ball. We talked about going into the game that we wanted to run the ball at least efficiently because we knew it was going to be tough to run it, and we knew that we were going to have to get some plays in the passing game. There were plays over the top that we could get. But they just got us physically up front.”
The offensive ineptitude wasted a valiant effort from Maryland’s defense, which limited the Spartans, who entered Saturday averaging a Big Ten-best 44 points per game, to 16 offensive points until midway through the fourth quarter.
The Terps gave up two touchdowns late, likely a product of wearing down during a game it was on the field for nearly 40 minutes.
But Michigan State star quarterback Connor Cook was 14-for-31 and finished without a touchdown pass, and standout running back Jeremy Langford had a modest 69 yards on 18 carries through three quarters.
There were only two big lapses for Maryland’s defense before the fourth quarter — safety Anthony Nixon getting beat for a 50-yard pass play that set up Michigan State’s second field goal and Nixon missing a tackle that helped Spartans wide receiver Keith Mumphery turn a short pass into a 62-yard gain during the second quarter.
The 62-yard gain set up an 8-yard touchdown run by Langford that pushed Michigan State’s lead to 16-7 with two minutes left in the second quarter.
“Defense was doing a heck of a job,” Brown said. “Offense has got to step it up, myself included. I’ve got to play better.”
Other games against high-profile teams such as Ohio State and Wisconsin were one-sided throughout and ended in lopsided losses for Maryland.
Edsall and players felt like Saturday was a game and an opportunity the Terps let slip away.
A win would have been Maryland’s first against a ranked team since Ralph Friedgen’s last regular-season game as Terps coach Nov. 27, 2010.
“In some of the other games that we’ve had, we didn’t have those opportunities,” Edsall said. “It’s 16-7 until late in the third quarter, and then we throw a pick-six when we have a guy in the flat that we should have thrown the ball to. That’s the thing that’s frustrating about it. It’s disappointing.
“To know that we had opportunities if we executed and did the things that were there for us to take … that’s what’s different and that’s what’s frustrating. Those are the things that I talked to the team about, and those are the things that we have to do, take advantage of those opportunities.
“If you do that, then you can beat a team like Michigan State.”