STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — One team is a traditional power trying to prove it hasn’t become just a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten outfit. The other team is trying to do something it hasn’t done in 15 years and its middle-of-the-pack days are over.
There are plenty of other off-the-field narratives to digest and discuss before Penn State welcomes Maryland to Beaver Stadium at noon ET on Saturday. But ultimately, there is a pretty important football game to be played.
The Nittany Lions (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) have alternated wins and losses through their first five games, and true to form during James Franklin’s tenure the fan base is particularly unhappy about the teams who have beaten Penn State (a 42-39 loss at Pitt and a 49-10 drubbing at Michigan). Franklin is 17-14 in nearly 2-1/2 seasons, an unremarkable but understandable ledger considering the aftermath of NCAA sanctions he has dealt with.
More importantly to a particular portion of the fan base, this season’s losses have dropped Franklin to 1-9 against Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Maryland and Pitt. And history provides plenty of examples where logic and reason are not enough to save a college football coach’s job when a certain section of his school’s supporters think said coach does not beat the most important teams on the schedule.
This is undeniably a big game for the future of Franklin and the Penn State program. It’s also critical if the Nittany Lions are going to be anything more than a 6- or 7-win also ran in the Big Ten East.
On the other sideline, Maryland (4-0, 1-0) is trying to reach 5-0 for the first time since 2001. The Terps had a first-year coach in Ralph Friedgen that season and went on to the win the ACC. Beating Penn State would not suggest that new coach DJ Durkin’s crew is ready to take down Ohio State or Michigan, but considering the wobbles of Michigan State and the Nittany Lions this season, third place in the East would look pretty attainable on Sunday morning.
When Penn State has the ball
Running back Saquon Barkley talked earlier this week about his encounter with the Maryland defense last season, in particular how he learned much and grew as a player in that game. In that contest, a 31-30 Penn State win, the Terps loaded up the box and became the first team to really contain and frustrate the then-freshman after he took over as the starter. It certainly helped prepare Barkley for this season, where he has seen plenty of loaded fronts as teams continue to dare Penn State to beat them through the air.
Trace McSorley had an uneven but ultimately effective game in last weekend’s 29-26 win over Minnesota and sits third in the conference with 256.8 yards passing per game. Maryland has a couple of talented players in the secondary with Will Likely and JC Jackson, but Penn State could find some favorable matchups away from those two. If Likely and Jackson spend a lot of time covering DaeSean Hamilton and Chris Godwin, there could be more chances for the other emerging targets like Mike Gesicki, DeAndre Thompkins, Irvin Charles and the returning Saeed Blacknall, who is expected to play after missing the past four games with an injury.
The Terps will use a variety of blitzes to try and pressure McSorley, and will probably crowd the line to try and contain Barkley. This could look a lot like the Minnesota game for Penn State — a struggle to piece together long drives but with opportunities to hit on some big plays.
Edge: Penn State
When Maryland has the ball
Pitt, Michigan and at times Minnesota overpowered the Penn State front seven and consistently picked up huge chunks of yards on the ground. Maryland is going to attack the Nittany Lions with speed and space. The Terps probably enjoyed watching the tape of that Pitt-Penn State game, and expect there to be plenty of misdirection in Maryland’s game plan.
The injury woes of the Penn State linebackers have been well documented, but this is the week where positional play and making the right decisions will matter as much as or more than whether or not guys such as sophomores Manny Bowen and Jake Cooper are able to withstand older, stronger guys trying to push them around. The Terps have a wide variety of options to deploy in the running game, and a rising star in offensive coordinator Walt Bell directing the operation.
Likely hasn’t featured as much as expected on offense for the Terps to this point, but he’s another dynamic runner that Bell could turn to this weekend. Penn State’s secondary should be able to contain Maryland’s receivers, unless the Terps run so effectively that it opens up play-action pass options or the Nittany Lions have to commit too many bodies forward to support the front seven.
For everything that has been written about Franklin’s strengths and weaknesses as a coach, his staff has turned an obvious weakness during the Bill O’Brien regime and the start of his tenure into arguably the team’s greatest strength. Penn State’s special teams play this year has been excellent.
Tyler Davis has never missed a kick at Penn State. Joey Julius is an effective kickoff specialist who also might knock the return man into next week if he’s not careful. Blake Gillikin has been a huge upgrade for the punt team. John Reid has had multiple strong punt returns. The kick returns have been pretty forgettable, however, and there was one kickoff returned against Penn State for a touchdown. But otherwise it’s hard to not see the special teams being worth a few points in the Nittany Lions’ favor each week at this point.
Edge: Penn State
Last season, the Nittany Lions had enough talent on offense at the skill positions but the offensive line was still a big problem and there were plenty of questions about play-calling and strategy. This season, the offense is better and as mentioned the special teams are significantly better.
But the other problems remain, and the defense is certainly an issue this season. Is that coaching? Sure, Bob Shoop is gone but it’s hard to pin the linebacker injury woes or the normal transition issues for a completely reworked defensive line on Brent Pry.
Meanwhile, Durkin, Bell and defensive coordinator Andy Buh have made all of the right decisions so far in their first season at Maryland. Durkin and Bell both look like future stars in the business, and Buh has added a no-nonsense, fundamentals-first approach, which seems very appropriate considering the time he spent with Durkin at Stanford.
It’s going to be a wet morning in Happy Valley, but how long the rain lingers could dictate a little of how often Penn State can lean on the passing game. These two teams have played to near draws each of the past two seasons, splitting a pair of 1-point contests.
Maryland is better than most people expected in Year 1 for Durkin. Penn State is still pretty “to be determined” at this point, with wild swings in each direction during games. For a while, the Nittany Lions can look like a legitimate 8- or 9-win team, but they will also look like a borderline bowl participant for a while, as well.
Prediction: Penn State 24, Maryland 23