Flames and fireworks erupted into the sky Saturday as the Maryland football team ran onto the field before facing Michigan State.
Offensive lineman Ellis McKennie carried the No. 79 flag out of the tunnel and reached the No. 79 painted behind the west end zone about 15 seconds later. There, he and many of his teammates removed their helmets and knelt down, as they have all season.
For Maryland, this season has been a balancing act between memorializing former offensive lineman Jordan McNair — who died June 13 after suffering heatstroke at a team workout two weeks earlier — and competing on the field. Those efforts are explicitly and inextricably connected: around Maryland Stadium, on players’ uniforms and in his former teammates’ minds, McNair’s memory remains as prominent as ever.
At the end of a week where players were jerked around with decisions and then reversals, student support and boycotts, Maryland fell flat on Saturday. Michigan State controlled the contest and cruised to a 24-3 victory.
“This week was a challenging week,” interim head coach Matt Canada said. “Tuesday, things happened. Wednesday, things happened. [But] Thursday morning, 7:45, we were in there meeting and in there working. So, so proud of our players.”
On Tuesday, coach DJ Durkin, who had been on administrative leave for 81 days, was reinstated at the recommendation of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents on Tuesday.
“It was awkward when he came back,” one player said Wednesday. Three players walked out of Durkin’s first meeting. A storm of discontent outpoured from the student body, the press and a faction of players. By Wednesday afternoon, shortly after Durkin left the practice field, university President Wallace Loh fired Durkin.
“A lot of people really just confused,” another player said. “Like, what was the point of bringing him back just to terminate him the next day?”
A student rally Thursday, originally planned to call for the firing of Durkin but changed to rallying support for the players, quickly turned into pandemonium as members of the crowd yelled for a boycott of games most students don’t attend anyway, while the megaphone-wielding speakers tried to maintain control.
On Saturday, questions remained of how the Terps would respond to yet another chapter in a rollercoaster season, and how many fans would be there to find out. By kickoff, the student section was as full as it has been all season. But with Maryland (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten) struggling to move the ball against the Spartans defense, that didn’t last into the second half.
When Maryland played Michigan State at home in 2014, the attendance was 51,802. In 2016, 41,235 packed in. Saturday’s attendance was 31,735.
“I really can’t speak to how the players feel about the week,” Canada said.
And reporters couldn’t ask the players how they felt, because they were not made available postgame.
Maryland picked up its lone first down of the first quarter on the last play of the period. The Terps managed eight yards on 12 plays in the frame and had 57 yards at halftime, capitalizing on a 16-yard punt from Michigan State punter Bryce Baringer to set up a field goal.
Meanwhile, Spartans running back Connor Heyward’s 18-yard score, along with a field goal, established a manageable one-score deficit for Maryland at the half. But the Terps struggled to get going on offense in the second half, too, with running back Ty Johnson sidelined with a calf strain suffered during last week’s win over Illinois.
Entering Saturday, Michigan State (6-3, 4-2) boasted the second-worst rushing offense in the Big Ten, but it ran for 269 yards. The Terps, whose running game is their bread and butter, accumulated just 26 yards on 29 carries.
“They are a very, very aggressive defense,” Canada said. “That’s why they’ve been so good, so long.”
Early in the fourth quarter, with Maryland still in striking distance of the Spartans, defensive back Antoine Brooks tipped a Michigan State pass. Defensive lineman Byron Cowart reeled it in and rambled toward the end zone. But wide receiver Darrell Stewart came from behind and punched the ball out of Cowart’s grasp just as he was about to score, and Michigan State recovered in the end zone for a touchback.
The next play, Heyward broke away for an 80-yard score, and when Brooks reached the sideline, he swiped away a couple of water bottles from the bench and slammed his helmet. The 14-point swing gave the Spartans a 24-3 lead, securing on the scoreboard the sort of control displayed throughout the outing.
Canada lamented that series of plays — and others, such as a Spartans fumble as Heyward lunged for the end zone that was recovered for a touchdown anyway — that pushed the contest out of reach.
“It’s one of those days,” Canada said.
And one of those weeks.