There was a common agreement between Penn State football and the external voices around it: After the Michigan loss, both Minnesota and Maryland matchups loomed larger.
A wild win over the Gophers last week was followed by a statement 38-14 win over Maryland on Saturday. Head coach James Franklin and his team head into the bye week with a 4-2 record, an offense that finally looks like it’s clicking in all quarters and a young defense that held a high-powered Maryland attack to just two touchdowns.
Trace McSorley has showed improvement week after week since the season began, and on Saturday the redshirt sophomore played the best game of his collegiate career. He was 10 for 19 with 152 yards and two touchdowns (no interceptions), including a five-yard touchdown strike to tight end Mike Gesicki and a 70-yard touchdown pass to receiver DeAndre Thompkins.
But where McSorley really shone was on the run on Saturday. His legs opened up the run game against Maryland early and paved the way for Saquon Barkley’s 202-yard career rushing day. McSorley had 81 yards and a touchdown on the ground. His total offense combined with Barkley’s for 435 of Penn State’s 524 total offensive yards.
“I think (Trace) really helped us,” said Franklin. “Getting Trace more involved in the run game, whether it’s called quarterback runs or RPOs (run-pass options), where in the past, the gray reads, we had been handing off. ... I think that helped us. One more thing for them to defend.
“It’s frustrating, for a defense, when you stop the run and do a great job in coverage and stop the pass, and all of the sudden the guy takes off and runs for 12-15 yards. ... I thought it was a major factor in the game. I think it really helped us, and I think it helped Saquon.”
▪ Penn State’s 372 net rushing yards are the most the team has had against an FBS opponent since 2002. The offensive line gave up three sacks, but also created ample space within which McSorley and Barkley could move, a point of pride for a unit that has often been the most-criticized on the team in recent years.
“I think we are progressing really nicely and taking steps,” said tackle Brendan Mahon. “Instead of five individuals, we are five guys playing as one.”
▪ One of Penn State’s adjustments to its many defensive injuries was to rotate players often, and 28 Nittany Lions recorded at least one tackle while new face at linebacker Koa Farmer had a career day, with five tackles and a sack that forced a fumble. Linebacker Brandon Smith nabbed his first career interception. The defense also held Maryland, a team that had entered the game with 172 points in four games, to just two scores.
▪ After getting outscored by 38 points by opponents in first halves this season, Penn State finally got the fast start it wanted with a statement first series on both offense and defense. McSorley marched the team downfield with a seven-play, 84-yard touchdown drive and Penn State forced a three-and-out on Maryland’s following possession. Defensive ends Evan Schwan and Garrett Sickels recorded back-to-back sacks in the effort. Penn State scored 24 first-half points and shut out Maryland in the second half.
Tackling issues surfaced once again for the Nittany Lions, who missed three on Maryland’s first touchdown of the game, a 66-yard catch-and-run by Ty Johnson. Quarterback Perry Hills also made two Nittany Lions miss on an 11-yard rush, one of just five rushing chunk plays allowed.
“We need to tackle better; we’re tackling too high,” said Franklin. “Sometimes we assume the guy is down and he’s not, we’ve got to get that cleaned up. Going into the bye week that will be a really big focus for us.”
Penn State hasn’t escaped a game without at least one key injury since the second week of the season. This week, it was a season-ending leg injury to right tackle Andrew Nelson, who is arguably the best player on the line.
Defensive back Grant Haley and receiver Saeed Blacknall are back after missing four weeks to injury. Starting linebackers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell are expected back but have been out for three weeks, and their timetables are shaky. Veteran starting linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White hurt his knee against Temple in week three and is out for the season. Linebacker Jake Cooper was inactive on Saturday, and backup Jan Johnson also hurt his knee and is out for the season. Defensive backs Amani Oruwariye and Christian Campbell are still out after getting banged up earlier in the year, and punter Blake Gillikin is dealing with an unspecified unjury suffered in practice last week.
The bye will help, but not fix everything.
“We need this time off,” said Franklin. “Some of our injuries are not going to heal in a week but some will.”
▪ Players hitting kicker Joey Julius after a play is clearly over is absolutely unacceptable, simple as that. Two players have been ejected for doing so in two weeks, and it shows an extreme lack of discipline and, honestly, a whole lot of idiocy.
Maryland coach D.J. Durkin told reporters after the game that had Davis not been ejected, he would have removed him from the game himself.