After a week that included the brief reinstatement and subsequent firing of coach DJ Durkin, Maryland lost Saturday to Michigan State, 24-3.
Many wondered how the tumultuous week — one that put Maryland’s football team and administration in an unwanted national glare — would affect the Terps when they hit the field Saturday for their home game against Michigan State.
Even after, it was difficult to tell.
Maryland looked much like the team it has all season when the competition is ratcheted up a notch or two in the Big Ten. The result was 24-3 loss to the Spartans that left the Terps still one win shy of reaching bowl eligibility.
It also left interim coach Matt Canada, in his first game since third-year coach DJ Durkin was fired Wednesday after being reinstated a day earlier, still looking to get another signature victory to add to the season-opening win over then-No. 23 Texas at FedEx Field.
Canada made a point to say he was proud of his players after what they had been through.
“I think we’ve done a really good job as a program of taking it day by day,” Canada said. “That’s what we’ve said the whole time. This week was a challenging week. That’s a fact and you guys all know it. We came in, we worked every day. Our kids played hard every day.
“Tuesday, things happen. Wednesday, things happen. Thursday morning at 7:45, we were in here meeting, we’re working. I’m so proud of our players. We focused on each other and again we lost today because we didn’t play well enough and we played a really good football team. And I didn’t coach well enough.”
Asked if the events of the past few days had taken their emotional toll on the players, Canada said, “I really can’t speak to how the players feel about the week. I think they played really hard. I didn’t think we had any trouble playing hard today.”
Exactly how the players felt about the roller coaster they rode — with the flip-flopping on Durkin’s status, as well as three players walking out of the meeting Durkin called Tuesday after being reinstated and an altercation after practice between two of the team’s punters — is not certain.
According to a team spokesman, the players were given a choice and opted not to talk to the media Saturday.
“They’re going to be available to talk on Tuesday,” Canada said. “This is a tough loss. There’s a lot going on, but for us, we just lost a football game. Our players are more than capable of speaking and they will. They’ve had a big week, a challenging week.
“That’s the great thing about this game. We went out there and played football today. Our guys were ready to play. They played very, very hard. Anybody wants to question that, we’ll talk to you. We didn’t win the football game. That’s where they are right now. They’re disappointed they didn’t win a football game.”
Instead, Canada was asked about what it will take for the Terps (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten) to compete against the conference’s upper-tier teams in the coming weeks. After next Saturday’s game at Indiana (4-5, 1-5), Maryland will host No. 10 Ohio State before finishing its season with a road game at No. 14 Penn State.
“I’ve got to coach better, just to answer,” Canada said. “They were leading the Big Ten in rushing defense. They’re really good. And they played really good up front. The wind affected us a little bit; it affected them, too. We had some opportunities. When you play a team like that, it comes down to those few plays.
“I know everybody doesn’t see that. Everybody is going to see the score, which is great. When you really look at it, there were some really key plays in there. … They are a really good football team, but we didn’t play our best.”
Maryland’s offense, which in the team’s three defeats this season could be called the run-and-shoot-yourself-in-the-foot, didn’t help itself.
Along with a pair of bad snaps that were either fumbled by or delivered off-target to redshirt freshman quarterback Kasim Hill, there were a couple of ill-timed drops by his receivers and a pair of false starts, including one in the second quarter by senior offensive tackle Derwin Gray on fourth-and-1 from the Michigan State 37 that forced Maryland to punt.
Coming off a week when the offense racked up 63 points and 712 yards in a 30-point home win over Illinois, Maryland managed a season-low 100 yards, including just 26 on the ground.
Conversely, after being ranked second last in the Big Ten in rushing offense (107.6 yards per game), Michigan State (6-3, 4-2) pushed the Terps around for 269 yards on the ground, including 157 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries by sophomore running back Connor Heyward.
“It was frustrating because there were some opportunities,” Canada said. “We didn’t come into the game thinking we were going to run the ball down the field on them. They are a very, very aggressive defense. That’s why they’ve been so good for so long.”
Two plays changed the tenor of the game. One happened late in the third quarter, the other early in the fourth quarter. They ended with fumbles that were recovered in the end zone, both by the Spartans.
Michigan State stretched its 10-3 halftime lead to 17-3 when senior fullback Max Rosenthal recovered a fumble by Heyward in the end zone for a touchdown.
A few minutes later, Maryland junior defensive end Byron Cowart intercepted backup quarterback Rocky Lombardi, on a pass tipped at the Michigan State 17 by junior linebacker Antoine Brooks Jr.
Cowart rumbled toward the end zone to apparently pull the Terps within one touchdown. But Michigan State junior wide receiver Darryl Stewart Jr. stripped the ball from Cowart and sophomore tight end Matt Dotson recovered for a touchback.
On the Spartans’ next play, Heyward broke free to run 80 yards for a touchdown.
“If we make that score, it’s 17-10 with 11 minutes to go,” Canada said. “We’re right in the game. … There were some opportunities to make plays when it presents itself. That’s the hard thing about our game. Every play’s ‘the play.’ I understand it was 24-3, but we were right there.”
Twice, the Terps couldn’t take advantage of shockingly short into-the-wind punts by Michigan State’s Bryce Baringer, a 16-yarder in the second quarter that led to a 23-yard field goal by freshman kicker Joseph Petrino and one that went 8 yards that was followed by a fumble by last week’s four-touchdown hero, sophomore running back Javon Leake.
“It was frustrating anywhere we started,” Canada said. “I thought we did a nice job creating some pressure. We had the ball on their side of the field. We were moving the ball. We had a chance.
“We didn’t make the play, so it’s frustrating. As I always say, I don’t care if it’s 63-60 or 3-0. If we win we’re happy, and if we lose we’re not. I’m frustrated we didn’t play well enough to win the game.”