After a Saturday night spent in fits while facing Ohio State’s tough dual-threat quarterback, J.T. Barrett, Penn State is preparing to take on another unpredictable quarterback attack in Maryland’s Perry Hills.
Hills rushed for 170 yards and two touchdowns against the Buckeyes himself, on his way to 303 yards of offense, two weeks ago. And the Terrapins are not only coming off a bye week, but will also debut interim head coach Mike Locksley at the helm of Maryland after the offensive coordinator was promoted following the (very drawn-out) firing of Randy Edsall.
“Mike Locksley and I worked together at the University of Maryland for five years,” said Franklin on Tuesday, referring to his time spent as the Terrapins’ receivers coach, starting in 2000. “I have tremendous respect for him as a coach.”
Franklin said he’s expecting the Terps to essentially do whatever they can to beat the Nittany Lions, starting with a mobile quarterback — who, by the way, has an experienced quarterback-turned-fullback-turned-back-to-quarterback in Shane Cockerille to either back Hills up or block for him (whichever Locksley pulls out of the hat) — and ranging into trick plays and the like.
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“We have to be prepared for the fake punts, we have to be prepared for the double passes,” said Franklin. “and we have to be prepared for a team that wants to get a win that’s really important to them, and I could see them doing whatever they have to do to get it.
“They’re going to look at some of the things Ohio State did last week, and we need to be prepared for them to settle down at quarterback now. He’s mobile...I could just see them coming in and being really aggressive and taking some calculated risks.”
The opportunity for the Nittany Lions, too, is a large one. The team is looking to bounce back from a 38-10 loss to the Buckeyes last week, has yet to win on the road, could become bowl-eligible with a victory, and will play with little love lost for the Terrapins, whose captains famously refused to shake hands with Penn State’s before last year’s game — and then went on to beat the Nittany Lions in Beaver Stadium, 20-19.
The Terps, tongues firmly planted in their cheeks, even announced this week that the team will be wearing a throwback uniform that pays homage to 1961 — the last time (before last season) that Maryland beat Penn State.
Starting right guard Andrew Zeller told Carroll County Times reporter Daniel Gallen this week that he and his fellow captains “absolutely” planned to shake hands this time around, while Penn State safety Marcus Allen said this week via teleconference that his squad is treating it like it’s a normal game.
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Penn State’s freshman phenom running back Saquon Barkley is back after missing time since going down with an ankle injury against San Diego State earlier this year, and the youngster exploded back on the scene by rushing for 194 yards against Ohio State on 26 carries, the most rushing yards the Buckeyes have ceded this year.
In the two Big Ten games in which Barkley has played, he’s rushed for an average of 194.5 yards and almost eight yards per carry. Against a No. 99-ranked Maryland rush defense that has allowed 196.8 yards per game, Barkley has a shot to keep those stats padded.
Continuing to have the freshman’s presence on the field will be crucial for Penn State, whose passing offense ranks No. 106 in the nation behind quarterback Christian Hackenberg’s 96 completions on 179 attempts for 1,206 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions through seven games.
Third downs have also continued to plague the Nittany Lions, as well. Penn State ranks 125th among FBS teams with just 27 third down conversions on 95 attempts (28.4 percent), and against Ohio State, the Nittany Lions converted on just one third down in 11 tries.
According to reports from Thursday’s media availability with Locksley, an immediate wrinkle could be thrown into the Terps’ offensive attack. Cornerback and return man Will Likely leads the nation with 625 return yards and two touchdowns, and is about as athletic as a player comes — and he could see time on offense.
“You’ll see him there, not just as in red zone, but maybe throw him there when we need a play made or just to find a way to create a spark for us on offense,” said Locksley, according to a report from The Washington Post.
A jet-sweep package could be Likely…and goes right along with the tongue-in-cheek Terps’ theme; what better play to use against Penn State than the one the Nittany Lions have found so useful this season?
Penn State’s defense will also have its hands full with Hills and Cockerille, both of whom are adequate passers but very effective on the ground. Last week, the Nittany Lions were able to completely shut down the true passing attack from Buckeyes then-starter Cardale Jones in the first and third quarters, but ceded 21 second-quarter points when dual-threat Barrett entered the game, and 17 in the fourth.
Yet the Terps offensive line has allowed 40.0 sacks this season, an average of 3.33 per game, which has to have edge rushers Carl Nassib (who is leading the nation with 11.5 sacks) and Garrett Sickels foaming at the mouth.
Maryland averages 177.7 rushing yards per game and has seven rushing touchdowns, and, quarterbacks aside, the Terps’ leading rusher is Brandon Ross, who has 453 yards on 80 carries and two touchdowns. In the air, Hills has completed 37 of 78 passing attempts for 439 yards (he’s played in just three games) and five touchdowns, with four interceptions.
Penn State has one truly impressive showing on special teams this season, and that was against Rutgers and its top returner, Janarion Grant. The Nittany Lions were able to both pin back and shut down Grant, but since have not performed consistently.
Neither Daniel Pasquariello nor Chris Gulla have hit the 40-yards-per-game punt average, and between the two, just seven of 44 punts have been downed inside the 20-yard line; their tries have shanked out-of-bounds every which way and even prompted Franklin to half-suggest an open tryout to rectify the issues after last week’s loss.
Likely, then, could possibly be one of the biggest factors in Saturday’s game. His 385 punt return yards and two touchdowns, and 22-yards-per-game average, ranks third in the nation, and he also has 291 kickoff return yards.
“That’s going to be a real challenge with Likely, who’s a very, very talented, explosive returner,” said Franklin on Tuesday. “He has had a huge impact this season for them, especially early in the season.”