Penn State has a chance to answer questions in rowdy environment at Maryland
You know there’s a big college football game taking place in town when classes are cancelled.
That’s exactly what will happen in College Park on Friday, as Penn State’s visit to town prompted Maryland officials to cancel all non-lab classes that afternoon ahead of the showdown between Penn State and Maryland.
PSU will find itself competing in a raucous environment as James Franklin’s crew will battle the Terrapins under the lights to open up Big Ten play. PSU is the last of the Big Ten teams to go on the road, so we’ll get a clearer idea of this squad away from Happy Valley.
The Nittany Lions are coming off of the first of two bye weeks this fall, and they will be looking to put some early season sloppiness behind them. We have seen Franklin’s team perform well in the past coming off of byes, notably in 2016 against Ohio State and versus Michigan in 2017. Mike Locksley and Maryland, however, will be coming off of a bye week as well.
Penn State has not found a ton of success on third down on both sides of the ball. The offense has converted just 7 of 30 chances (23 percent) as it adjusts to life without quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Miles Sanders, while the defense has given up some big plays when it has had a chance to get off of the field. That is troubling considering Maryland’s offense has converted on almost 45 percent of its third-down opportunities.
“It was a big part of our bye week studies and discussion,” Franklin said of the third-down woes on both sides of the ball. “I think overall just an awareness of our players and coaches understanding the situation we’re in, where the sticks are, what they have to get to, and then the calls that we make and our players understanding the strengths and weaknesses of those calls.
“It’s just all those things. It was a big point of emphasis over the bye week.”
Of central concern for the Nittany Lions defensively is containing star Terrapins tailback Anthony McFarland, who is still one of the more underappreciated offensive stars in the country. PSU was strong against the run in its win over Pitt, holding the Panthers to just 24 yards on 25 attempts. But McFarland is quite the difference-maker.
He has 6 total touchdowns this fall and was two yards shy of 300 in last season’s near-upset of Ohio State. He is a threat both as a runner and a receiver, and the Terps have a more explosive offense than last year, which means focusing in on McFarland can open up avenues for other weapons. PSU was able to hold the star back to 12 yards on six carries in last year’s game, but this is an entirely different Maryland offensive outfit.
The Lions will catch a break, however, because an already suspect Terps offensive line will be without veteran guard Terrance Davis, who suffered a sprained MCL in the team’s loss to Temple. He is the team’s glue up front, so he will be missed.
The biggest question is which Maryland team will Penn State see on Friday night?
Will it be the squad that squashed Syracuse, 63-20, in Week 2 — the one that more closely resembled the team that beat Texas and nearly upset Ohio State in 2018? Or will it be the one that suffered a 20-17 road loss to Temple, which fell to Buffalo on Saturday, just a week after the mauling of the Orange?
Is Maryland ready to step up and be a real contender in the Big Ten East, or will we see an overwhelmed bottom-feeding squad that has been outscored a combined 142-20 over the last three meetings with Penn State?
The strength of the 2019 Nittany Lions is the defense led by Yetur Gross-Matos, Micah Parsons and Cam Brown. But the offense is still trying to find itself in its second year without former coordinator Joe Moorhead. Even if the defense plays well and puts a cap on Maryland’s up-tempo offense, quarterback Sean Clifford and crew need to pick up the pace a bit after putting up just seven points in the first half against Buffalo and just 17 total against Pittsburgh.
Clifford can’t do it all. He leads the team in rushing attempts with 25, so Journey Brown needs to be leaned upon more heavily after surpassing 100 yards in his first career start against Pitt. His workload should increase this week.
Penn State can ill afford sloppiness in what should be a rowdy environment at Maryland. There should be plenty of PSU alumni at the game, as the schools are within a roughly 3:30 drive from one another. But this is certainly a showcase game for a Terps program that has to recruit harder than Penn State in the DMV (Delaware, Maryland and Northern Virginia) region to get recruits.
Maryland looked like a dark horse in the East after its blowout win of Syracuse, then it took a step back with its loss to Temple. Penn State, meanwhile, has questions of its own that need answering in what will be a difficult road environment.
Talent is not the issue for the Nittany Lions. If they can fight through their inexperience in front of a hostile crowd and win their Big Ten opener, it will bode well for a squad that will likely face an even tougher test with a rumored prime time battle in Iowa City against the Hawkeyes looming.
Even if you were opposed to Friday night B1G football like I was, this late September battle in College Park holds a lot of intrigue before the rest of the league plays on Saturday. And that’s never a bad thing for the conference.