NOAH TRISTER, AP Sports Writer
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — When Michigan State takes the field against Maryland this weekend, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio won’t really know what to make of his team’s pregame mood.READ MORE: The Detroit Zoo To Host Its Final Weekend Of Family-Friendly Halloween Event 'Zoo Boo' Oct. 22-24
“Really, I’ve almost quit trying to figure out how a football team gets ready,” he said. “I’ve seen guys in the locker room very serious and not play well. I’ve seen guys almost sort of jovial and play very well.”
To Dantonio, the real preparation takes place throughout the week during practice, and one thing Michigan State has been very good at over the past few years has been refocusing after a tough loss or a big victory. The 14th-ranked Spartans will be tested again when they host Maryland on Saturday, a week after Michigan State was upset in a last-second loss at Nebraska.
The Spartans (8-1, 4-1 Big Ten, No. 13 CFP) can still win the conference title if they go through the rest of their schedule without a loss. The game Nov. 21 at Ohio State still looms as a huge one for both teams. So it’s not as though Michigan State should lose any urgency now that its unbeaten run in 2015 is over.
Instead, it’s Maryland (2-7, 0-5) that has to find motivation. The Terrapins can no longer secure bowl eligibility with a .500 record even if they win their remaining games.
“I said to the guys that obviously our goal is to prolong the season,” Maryland interim coach Mike Locksley said. “We won’t be able to extend our season with the bowl opportunity, but as I told the guys, this is also the start for young players. I really feel that this could be the nucleus for a team that could contend for a Big Ten championship.”
Before last weekend, the last time Michigan State lost was in November 2014, when the Spartans fell at home to Ohio State. That game knocked Michigan State out of any real contention for the college football playoff, but the Spartans still recovered well enough to beat Maryland 37-15 the following week.
Now it’s Maryland again that stands in the way of a Michigan State team that still has plenty to play for.
“I just think it’s another opportunity to prove yourself,” Dantonio said. “Another opportunity to say, ‘OK, we got knocked down, we’re getting up off the mat, we’re playing.’ That’s what we did last year. We had to go and play after a very disappointing game. We had to get back up and play.”
Here are a few things to watch when the Spartans host the Terrapins:
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Michigan State started three freshmen in the defensive backfield last weekend, and Nebraska was able to take advantage of the Spartans’ inexperience in the secondary. That’s an issue that isn’t going away thanks to long-term injuries to CB Vayante Copeland and S RJ Williamson, but it’s not clear if Maryland’s passing game is good enough to exploit this Michigan State weakness.
Maryland is the only team in the country with two players who have at least 6 1/2 sacks — Yannick Ngakoue and Quinton Jefferson. Michigan State’s Connor Cook has thrown for 21 touchdowns and three interceptions this season, so if he has time in the pocket, the Terrapins are probably in trouble.
The Spartans have had problems on special teams this season, and Maryland’s Will Likely is always a threat to break free for a game-changing play on a return.
The Michigan State game caps a brutal stretch for Maryland in which the Terrapins have had six games against teams with a combined record now of 48-8. They’ve lost to Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin.
The Spartans have converted 50.8 percent of their opportunities on third down this season, ranking fifth in the country in that department. Michigan State is 21 for 34 on third down over its last two games.
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