Christian Hackenberg wasn’t sure he could really put his frustration into words.
The Penn State quarterback didn’t have to.
His animated sideline talks with offensive coordinator John Donovan and Hackenberg’s final walk off the field where he smacked his hands against his helmet and forcefully ripped his chinstrap off after a botched snap sealed Penn State’s 20-19 loss to Maryland were evidence enough.
Really, Saturday’s offensive debacle was just the latest exhibit in a growing evidence locker for a team searching for answers and remedies to offensive ineptitude.
“You really can’t explain it. It hurts,” Hackenberg said. “I think it’s tough for everyone, not just me. Every game is going to be a brawl from here on out. I think that’s been a pretty consistent trend throughout the season so we’ve just got to dig our way out of it, continue to fight.”
Throughout their four-game losing streak, the Nittany Lions (4-4, 1-4 Big Ten) have been fighting themselves. Their offense and special teams -- excluding the field goal unit — are doing little to help one of the country’s best defenses.
Saturday’s loss to the Terrapins (6-3, 3-2) followed that trend throughout.
Overall, Hackenberg was sacked five times to push his season total to 30. Penn State punted eight times, lost two fumbles on offense, gained just 42 rushing yards on 41 carries and converted only six of 20 third downs.
Penn State had to settle for the first of Sam Ficken’s four field goals after its opening drive stalled. Hackenberg was sandwiched at the line of scrimmage on the first of many hard hits on the 19-year-old sophomore to cue Ficken’s trot onto the field.
The offense’s second drive ended worse.
Hackenberg fired deep but intended target DaeSean Hamilton ran a route his quarterback wasn’t suspecting and Maryland’s William Likely camped out under and intercepted the ball. The turnover prompted a fiery discussion between the quarterback, play-caller Donovan and wide receivers coach Josh Gattis wherein all three men gestured emphatically.
Meanwhile, the Terrapins were quickly bottled up by Penn State’s defense as they would be for much of the afternoon. Penn State allowed just 196 total offensive yards, came up with six sacks and recovered two fumbles. But the Nittany Lions were forced to defend short field and allowed two touchdowns and the game-winning field goal in those situations.
A Daniel Pasquariello punt of just 24 yards gave Maryland possession at Penn State’s 43-yard line and the Terrapins marched down the field, were aided by a 15-yard personal foul on freshman safety Marcus Allen for a late hit, and scored on a two-yard touchdown pass from C.J. Brown to P.J. Gallo to give Maryland its first lead of the game 7-3.
Freshman return man Grant Haley coughed up the ball on a fourth-quarter kick return and Maryland recovered at Penn State’s 24-yard line. From there, the Terrapins needed just four plays to get into the end zone and did so when Wes Brown hopped over the goal line from a yard out to give them a 17-16 lead.
With Penn State up 19-17 following Ficken’s fourth field goal, Pasquariello sent a 37-yard punt over the 50 but the speedy Stefon Diggs zigzagged through Penn State’s coverage unit to set Maryland’s offense up with good field position again. Diggs was brought down at Penn State’s 42-yard line and the Terrapins managed 17 yards, enough for Brad Craddock to connect on a 43-yard kick to put Maryland up with just 51 seconds to play.
Over their last four Big Ten games, Penn State’s defense has allowed eight touchdown drives. Six of those have started in Penn State territory.
“The most frustrating thing is seeing our defense play their hearts out and us not being able to return the favor for them,” Hamilton said. “They’re one of the best defenses in the nation right now and us going out there and laying eggs on some drives is the most frustrating thing.”
Penn State didn’t have it any easier with left tackle Donovan Smith unavailable due to an injury. Regular right tackle Andrew Nelson moved over to man Smith’s spot while center Angelo Mangiro played right tackle. Wendy Laurent made his first career start at center.
Running back Akeel Lynch got his first start of the season but Penn State’s running game never took off. Lynch finished with 51 yards on 21 carries while Bill Belton added 14 yards on eight touches. But it was Hackenberg who had the longest run of the day for 17 yards on a scramble in the second half.
“We’ve been struggling all year long,” coach James Franklin said of the team’s offensive line. “As you guys know we have depth issues. Now we lose our left tackle. So that magnifies an issue that we already have.”
Five of Penn State’s drives went backward and the Nittany Lions gained less than 20 yards on eight others.
They were able to move the ball in the third quarter when Hackenberg directed an eight-play, 51-yard drive that featured six passing plays. It ended with one from eight yards out when Jesse James leaped over safety Sean Davis and caught the ball over him near the side of the end zone.
“We’re leaving a lot out there,” James said. “The third down plays we’ve got to get better at. Just leaving too much out there for the other team to be able to decide the ending. We’ve just got to take advantage of games at the beginning.”
Ficken, who drilled a 47-yard field goal to start the scoring, hit 25- and 46-yarders in the second quarter and a 48-yarder in the fourth. Craddock stayed perfect for Maryland with a 25-yarder in addition to the game-winner.
Maryland players said they were well aware of Penn State’s dominance in the series. The Nittany Lions owned a 35-1-1 advantage heading into the game, including 20-0 at Beaver Stadium. But Gallo was quick to note he and the rest of his teammates had nothing to do with the past series. The two teams who will battle in the Big Ten’s East Division into the future hadn’t played in more than a decade. Maryland players said they feel like they’re off to a good start in the renewed series with their first ever win in Beaver Stadium.
“We think that we set the tone for the rivalry today going forward,” Gallo said.