If there’s such a thing as a must-win game for Penn State in its 3rd game of the season, it’s going to be Saturday against Maryland as the Lions look to rebound from their first 0-2 start in 8 years. The last time Penn State started 0-3 was 2001, when it actually lost its first 4 games.

The Terrapins haven’t scored more than 3 points against Penn State since 2016, including their 59-0 thumping last year in College Park, but they are playing inspired football on the heels of a a monster game from sophomore QB Taulia Tagovailoa against Minnesota.

On a personal note for James Franklin, the game has meaning going against a fellow Black head coach in Mike Locksley after the duo spent several seasons as a part of the same staff at Maryland in the early 2000s.

Penn State has several issues that it needs to clean up from its first 2 games. Here are 5 things that I want to see the Lions accomplish on their way to winning their first game:

Start fast

Enough with the slow starts already …

  • 13 combined 1st-half points
  • 75 yards at the half against Ohio State
  • a 17-7 deficit against Indiana.

Starting slow is as synonymous with  Franklin as are his repetitive tweets naming Penn State’s upcoming opponent.

In 2016, the slow starts were “cute.” An underdog Penn State team continually pulled off miraculous comebacks en route to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl appearance. In that season alone, the Nittany Lions overcame a 28-7 hole against Pitt, a 17-17 halftime deficit against a bottom-feeder Purdue and then rallied back from a 28-7 score against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship.

Proponents of Franklin will chalk it up to his ability to adapt at halftime, but that can no longer be the case, especially against a Maryland team rolling into Beaver Stadium on the high of a huge win against Minnesota.

It shouldn’t take 30 minutes for Kirk Ciarrocca to realize what is not working for Sean Clifford and the offense. He finally let Clifford air it out in the 3rd quarter against the Buckeyes to the tune of 6 straight completions, but it was already too late.

Penn State needs to quickly take the wind out of the Terrapins’ sails and never let them believe they have a shot at pulling the upset.

More running … by the running backs

What was once arguably the best running back room in the country on Oct. 1 has quickly turned into one of the team’s biggest question marks. Clifford leads the team in carries and yards, so something that needs to change if the Lions want a healthy quarterback on the field in December.

Against the Buckeyes, Devyn Ford was the only tailback to record a carry, which is understandable given the magnitude of the game with only freshmen behind him.

Maryland’s defense has been gashed in the run game, allowing 587 yards and a remarkable 9 touchdowns on the ground in its first 2 games. Both figures are the worst in the B1G.

Assuming Penn State avoids the slow start and isn’t forced to pass its way back from a large hole, this should be the perfect opportunity to rotate in Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee while also getting Ford more than 8 carries.

Let Clifford focus on settling into a rhythm with his receivers and allow the Penn State offensive line to show why it’s been hyped this offseason against an inferior Maryland defensive line that has consistently been bullied in its first two games.

Let’s really see what Jahan Dotson is

Outside of Ricky White at Michigan State, no receiver had a bigger breakout game than Penn State’s junior wideout against the Buckeyes. By now you’ve probably seen his back-to-back highlight catches on SportsCenter, but it’s time to see if Dotson is capable of being a consistent, go-to guy for Clifford.

Dotson’s 8 catches for 144 yards and 3 touchdowns were the lone bright spot in the loss to Ohio State, and outside of Clifford’s legs against the Hoosiers, Dotson’s flirtation with another 100-yard game was the best thing in Bloomington.

If Dotson can emerge as the type of playmaker that KJ Hamler was in 2019, that will prevent defenses from devoting the entirety of their attention on Pat Freiermuth, opening things up for the preseason All-American who has 10 catches on the year.

Penn State will also start freshman KeAndre Lambert-Smith for the first time, so as he and Parker Washington continue to develop, Penn State’s receiving corps may actually surpass the running backs as its most effective weapon.

Something special from special teams

Fumbled kickoff returns, multiple fair catches inside the 5-yard line, Penn State’s special teams have been far from dynamic. For a team that had grown accustomed to Saquon Barkley and Hamler returning kicks, the Lions’ return game has been a net-negative when you factor in the lack of field position it has provided the offense.

“We spent a lot of time this offseason studying analytics, and the analytics say that no one is really getting it back to the 25-yard line consistently,” Franklin said Wednesday regarding kickoff returns. “Unless you’re playing an opponent where they’re not kicking it deep and they don’t have appropriate hang time, it doesn’t make sense to return it.”

Granted Penn State expected Journey Brown to be returning kicks this season, there hasn’t even been a real chance for Devyn Ford, Lamont Wade or Parker Washington to show what they’re capable of. Penn State has yet to return a punt.

If the defense does its job against Maryland, there shouldn’t be too many opportunities for a kickoff return, but when there is, it’s time for one of the returners to show their skills.

Two interceptions

The heralded Penn State defense has produced just 1 interception and 1 fumble recovery through 2 games, both against Indiana. Just like with special teams, there haven’t been any real game-changing moments.

Taulia Tagovailoa is coming off a huge 394-yard, 3-touchdown day passing against Minnesota, but he’s an inexperienced sophomore playing against the best defense he has faced.

Tagovailoa likes to get the ball out quick on short routes to one of his talented receivers Dontay Demus Jr. or Jeshaun Jones and will likely look to get the ball out even quicker against Penn State with Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh lurking around the edge.

He’ll likely be locked on his first read and won’t progress to a second option, leaving the perfect opportunity for Joey Porter or Tariq Castro-Fields to play aggressive and jump some routes.