Penn State football: 5 reasons the Lions should fear The Turtle (and themselves)
With its Big Ten and Playoff aspirations dashed, Penn State is right there with Maryland, a couple of 5-3 teams chasing bowl eligibility and nothing more.
They’ll meet up on Saturday for the 8th time since the Terrapins joined the B1G in 2014, the same year James Franklin took charge of the Nittany Lions. Franklin is 5-2 vs. Maryland, meaning he owns all but 1 of PSU’s losses to the Terps, who were 1-35-1 in the series before the schools became league-mates.
Penn State will enter the 3:30 p.m. contest in College Park, Md., as a tenuous 10-point favorite looking to stem the bleeding from a 3-game losing streak. On paper, the matchup favors the Lions. But they’ve generated a month’s worth of doubts for their fans, even with a gritty effort in last week’s 33-24 loss to Ohio State.
Maryland has its own issues but can pose problems for the Lions, as it proved last year in a 35-19 romp at Beaver Stadium.
It’s Illinois all over again
Two weeks ago, coming off a soul-crushing loss to a top-5 team (Iowa), Penn State played one of the worst games in its history, losing to Illinois 20-18 in a 9-OT affair. The Illini entered with the worst defense in the league yet somehow held the Lions to 10 points in regulation.
Now, coming off a tough, physical loss to No. 5 Ohio State, the Lions face a defense giving up more than 400 yards per game and ranking 12th in the B1G. Maryland brings more offensive firepower than the Illini did, but predominantly through the air, meaning it’ll be going right into the teeth of the 8th-best scoring defense in the country.
Like the Illini, the Terps shouldn’t have a shot. Well, unless Penn State is nursing an OSU hangover and plays down to its opponent. Or Mike Locksley, Maryland’s 3rd-year coach, finds and exploits an Achilles heel the way Illinois’ Bret Bielema did with his extra-heavy run package.
It’s hard to trust statistical analysis or Vegas odds with a home loss to a 3-TD underdog still fresh in the mind.
Taulia Tagovailoa is good
Tua’s little brother is coming off a career-best 419-yard passing game in a 38-35 victory over Indiana. Outside of a horrendous performance against Iowa (5 INTs), he’s been the B1G’s best quarterback this year despite losing star receiver Dontay Demus Jr. early in the season. He’s 2nd in the league in passing yards per game (298), completion percentage (70.2) and QB rating.
Last year against Penn State, Tagovailoa hit 18 of 26 passes for 282 yards and 3 TDs, posting most of those numbers in a dominating first half against the heavily favored Nittany Lions. He hit Rakim Jarrett with long TD strikes twice in the first quarter, and Jarrett is healthy and coming off a 5-catch, 88-yard day against the Hoosiers. Last year against PSU, he posted a 5-144-2 receiving day.
With Carlos Carriere emerging as another go-to receiver last week (8-134, 2 TDs), Tagovailoa has the weapons to stress one of the best secondaries in the country.
The run game dilemma
After Penn State rushed for a season-low 33 yards on 29 carries against Ohio State, Franklin said he saw signs of improvement in the Lions’ run game.
“I thought we ran the ball better. … We didn’t get any explosive runs, but I thought we were much more efficient in our run [game],” Franklin said in postgame interviews late Saturday night in Columbus. “We were able to keep it mixed in there to keep them honest.”
Apparently, the lineman and backs were running into the brick wall with more gusto. More physicality? More commitment? More determination?
Three days later, back in State College, he reiterated the thought, almost word for word. “I thought we played more physical this week. I thought we were able to run the ball, mix it in there, so I think we want to build on that.”
He seems to want to establish the run, not give up on it, though he might just be bluffing opposing coach Mike Locksley.
But assuming Franklin is sincere, therein lies the rub. If Penn State tries and fails against the second-worst rush defense in the Big Ten, it’s essentially wasting about 30 plays and keeping itself off schedule.
That might make sense for the long haul, but maybe not for trying to go 1-0 this week.
Maryland really cares
Locksley, the former Alabama assistant, would gain a lot of ground with a second straight victory over the big brother to the north. The programs battle in the same division and over some of the same recruiting turf, with Maryland historically being left the crumbs.
Whatever Saturday’s game may mean to a Penn State program dealing with at least rumors of turmoil, it’s huge for Maryland.
Little margin for error
We’ve learned this season that if Sean Clifford is less than 100 percent or having a subpar game, the Lions looks nothing like a top-5 team, and rather like the non-top 25 group the initial CFP standings say they are. Add in the fact that Penn State has allowed Clifford to be sacked 4 times in each of the past 2 games. Know that the Lions lost the turnover battle 4-1 vs. Iowa and 3-1 vs. Ohio State. Look at the calendar and realize Franklin’s team hasn’t won a game in over a month.
Penn State is on a 3-game bender despite having the best anti-touchdown red zone defense in the country. The defense can only do so much. One big play — Nico Ragaini’s 44-yard TD reception for Iowa, for example — could turn the tide.
According to ESPN’s FPI analytics, Penn State has an almost 80 percent chance of winning on Saturday. Maryland’s run game isn’t much better than Penn State’s, and its defense is much worse. But Tagovailoa is hot, Maryland is motivated, and Penn State’s character is in question.