STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Maryland came to Beaver Stadium with one of the top rushing attacks in the nation, averaging 300 yards per game.
Penn State has a couple of guys who are pretty good at running the football, too. The Nittany Lions deployed a dual-threat ground assault Saturday to defeat the Terps, 38-14. They had 300 yards rushing at the end of the third quarter and finished with 372.
Saquon Barkley set a career high with 202 yards rushing. Penn State controlled the line of scrimmage, and Maryland struggled to contain quarterback Trace McSorley when he kept the ball himself. McSorley finished with 81 yards on 18 attempts.
Five things we learned
- Joey Julius is a target: For the second straight week, Penn State kicker Joey Julius was nailed after a kickoff on a dirty hit. Julius gained plenty of attention for a pair of crunching hits on kick returners earlier this season. Maryland linebacker Isaiah Davis knocked Julius down after his kick to open the second half. Not only was Julius not anywhere near the play, but the ball had already sailed out of bounds. Davis was ejected, and the crowd was quickly fired up as everyone returned to their seats.
- Ty Johnson is really, really fast: Maryland running back Ty Johnson came into the game averaging nearly 12 yards per carry. He did not have a big impact on the ground, but scored the Terps’ first touchdown on a 66-yard reception. Not only did Penn State correctly diagnose that a screen pass was afoot, but multiple Nittany Lions defenders looked like they had an angle on Johnson after he broke free down the sideline. Johnson made an excellent catch on the ball when it was almost out of reach, then found the sideline and a gear Penn State’s defenders could not match.
- Maryland’s offense is as advertised, but needs to keep Perry Hills healthy: The Terps were able to find some big plays against Penn State’s defense. They can spread teams out and find open space to run into. For the second time this season, starting quarterback Perry Hills was injured. It didn’t hurt the Terps near the end of the game against Central Florida, but freshman Tyrrell Pigrome was not ready to lead a comeback in the second half after Hills was injured late in the second quarter. Pigrome is an exciting athlete, but he’s not ready to dissect Big Ten defenses as a passer, and the offensive line isn’t good enough to ward off a defense that knew Maryland had become one-dimensional with Hills out.
- Penn State’s pass rush is improving: Not to be overlooked by the rushing rampage, Penn State’s defense found lots of success getting after the quarterback. The Nittany Lions had four sacks by four different players. Two came on the first drive of the game for the Terps. Another pressure led to Hills throwing an interception to Penn State linebacker Brandon Smith.
- Saquon Barkley would like to remind everyone he is still awesome: Barkley said earlier this week that the Maryland game in 2015 was a big moment in his career because the Terps were the first team to bottle him up after he became the starter and he had to grow from the experience. A year later, a visit from Maryland became his first monster game of the 2016 campaign. It started with two big runs on the first drive and continued with an amazing “two-minute drill” that consisted of handing him the ball three times for 70 yards in the final of the first half. He added one of his signature hurdles in the third quarter as well. It was an incredible performance.
Shortly after Barkley fumbled deep in Maryland territory when the Nittany Lions had a chance to push the lead to 17 points, the Terps marched into scoring position. But when faced with a fourth-and-2 and the chance to cut the lead to 24-17, Maryland choose to go for it. After a timeout just before the snap, the Terps’ try, an outside run by freshman Jake Funk, was blown up by the Penn State defense and ended the threat.
When the Nittany Lions went to Ann Arbor and were crushed by Michigan, they were 2-2 and the injuries were mounting. The season was in danger of being a disappointment before it reached the midway point. This was a critical two-game stretch of home games against Minnesota and Maryland.
After surviving against the Gophers in overtime, this was Penn State’s best showing of the season. Any general concerns about the state of the program and whether or not the 2016 team could improve after that performance at the Big House should be eased, at least until Ohio State comes to Happy Valley in two weeks.
Will the Penn State offensive line be able to continue to build off this impressive performance if starting right tackle Andrew Nelson is out for a significant period of time? Nelson left the game on a cart late in the second half with an apparent right leg injury. Paris Palmer entered the game at left tackle, and Brendon Mahon switched sides to right tackle to replace Nelson.
The Nittany Lions finished with 524 yards of total offense. That’s the highest total in coach James Franklin’s tenure. Penn State had 511 in his first game against Central Florida in 2014.
What it means
Penn State is 4-2 despite a slew of injuries on defense. Despite a lot of angst about the start of the season, including losses to Pitt and Michigan, this is about where most people probably expected the Nittany Lions to be. The offense is significantly improved, and the defense is surviving. There should be fewer questions about James Franklin’s job security for the next two weeks, at least.
Maryland failed to reach 5-0 for the first time since 2001. The Terps were still able to find some big plays, but were dominated on both lines of scrimmage. There is still plenty of work to be done by coach D.J. Durkin and his staff, but this is far from a sign of bad times ahead.