STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — This has been a rivalry week, though admittedly far more low key than the one leading up to Penn State’s game at Pittsburgh earlier this season.
There has been far less discussion by Penn State coaches and players about facing Maryland at Beaver Stadium on Saturday than there was before the Nittany Lions went to Heinz Field to face the Panthers.
A big difference is familiarity, and that Pitt and Penn State hadn’t played in 16 years. So it was a week-long celebration in the media and across the Keystone State about the renewal of a once-fantastic feud between Pennsylvania’s top two programs.
But the situation with Penn State and Maryland is similar. There are battles for recruits. And Maryland fans harbor dislike for Penn State for many of the same reasons that Pitt fans do.
Most of the players and coaches on both sides downplayed the significance of the opponent, but not everyone did.
“(For) everybody that I have met that is a Maryland fan, this game is the one game since the day I got here that I have heard about the most,” Terps offensive coordinator Walt Bell said. “I have no idea why. I’m not going to get into the psychology of why, and I haven’t been here long enough honestly to understand.
“But I do understand the importance of this game, from an outside-looking in, outside-the-white-lines perspective.”
One big difference between Pitt and Maryland is that the history of the series is far more one-sided. There was a 29-game Penn State winning streak that spanned more than 50 years. The final three games in the early 1990s, before the series was suspended, had an average margin of victory of 46.3 points.
When the two teams were reunited in 2014, it was not voluntarily but because of conference expansion. This is the third time the two programs have met since Maryland joined the Big Ten, so maybe some of the “hey, the rivalry is back and feels new again” sentiment has weakened. Franklin’s connection to Maryland isn’t a big storyline anymore. There are players on both sides who will see old friends standing on the opposite sideline, but there isn’t a particularly juicy subplot from that standpoint.
But make no mistake: This is an important game for both programs in 2016 and beyond, and it is no longer a one-sided rivalry. Although Penn State has won 36 of the 39 meetings and Maryland has prevailed only twice, both meetings since the Terps joined the conference have been decided by one point.
Should Maryland win Saturday at Beaver Stadium, that would mean Franklin and his staff would have more losses to the Terps than Penn State had in the first 37 games of the series. Franklin’s boss, athletic director Sandy Barbour, has provided a public statement of support for her head coach twice in recent weeks, but his record against the teams that Penn State fans and boosters care most about beating is not great.
Penn State is 1-9 against Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Pitt and Maryland since the start of the 2014 season. There’s also a loss to Temple in there. At places like Penn State, where tradition can trump logic when it comes to expectations, the coach is always better off winning the “right” games, not just as many as possible.
Beyond the long-term ramifications for both schools, as new Maryland coach D.J. Durkin tries to rebuild his program and Franklin tries to continue rebuilding his, it is also a critical football game in the context of the 2016 campaign.
Maryland is off to a 4-0 start, 1-0 in the Big Ten. A win Saturday validates the early work against less-than-brand-name competition and might push the Terps into the AP Top 25 poll. They haven’t been ranked in the top 25 since 2013, and have spent one week in the rankings since 2008.
A win would also recalibrate what people outside the program think is possible for the Terps in 2016. They wouldn’t be a team with a first-year coach just looking for hints of hope and striving for respectability. They would be a team capable of finding a home in the middle of the Big Ten, at a minimum, something that didn’t look very plausible after the tire fire of 2015.
“From the inside-the-white-lines perspective, this is a big game for our program,” Bell said. “It’s our first Big Ten game on the road. If you’re able to go into a hostile environment in our own league and find a way to a win a football game, regardless of whether it is 3-2, 7-6 or 41-40, who cares? Just that alone, regardless of our opponent, would be huge for our program.”
For Penn State in 2016, this could be a defining contest. Before Minnesota came to Happy Valley last week, Nittany Lions tight end Mike Gesicki acknowledged, despite the traditional one-game-at-a-time culture, that the next two games were critical to Penn State’s success.
The Nittany Lions (3-2, 1-1) needed to beat Minnesota and Maryland at home, or the path to a successful season became tough to see. They survived the Gophers, and may need to do the same against an improving Terps team.
“I think both teams are going to be going into that stadium on Saturday fired up and excited,” Franklin said. “They are coming in undefeated. We played an undefeated team last week. We are coming off a big emotional win where the guys just kept fighting and persevering.
“I think all that is wonderful. You’ll have the initial emotion of the game when it first starts, and then it’s going to come down to fundamentals and techniques and discipline and ultimately execution like it does every week. I think both teams are coming in in a good place.”