One huge sack, on third-and-long.
One crucial interception.
One road win.
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One wildly epileptic, frenzied, manic game.
Won, by one.
Penn State (6-2, 3-1) was both flail and finesse, at different times and sometimes all at once, in a 31-30 win over Maryland (2-5, 0-3) on Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium in front of 68,948, during which the lead changed four times and the ball was turned over a combined seven times.
“If I had to imagine, it was a heck of a game to watch as a fan,” said a breathless, perspiring head coach James Franklin after the game. “I sure would like to get a game that’s a little easier. I lost probably 45 pounds, I aged five years ...
“Most importantly ... we were resilient tonight. There was adversity faced, there was highs and lows, there was big plays, there was plays that we gotta get cleaned up.”
A Maryland team that recently appointed an interim head coach, Mike Locksley, after the firing of Randy Edsall, threw out trick plays, new personnel, and a blitz-heavy defense that loaded the box. They were creative; sneaky and slippery — Franklin said earlier this week that the Terrapins would play as such, like, after a tumultuous season, they had nothing to lose. The Terps even ran Penn State’s own pet play against it: a jet sweep from backup quarterback Shane Cockerille, who switched back to the spot from fullback, to William Likely, who is actually a cornerback and return man. And, they threw another dual-threat quarterback at Penn State in Perry Hills, who passed for 225 yards and rushed for 124 yards alongside his two touchdowns and three interceptions.
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“They were doing some funky things that they haven’t shown all year,” said a hoarse Angelo Mangiro after the game.
Funky? Try frenetic.
“They came out and threw the kitchen sink at us,” quarterback Christian Hackenberg said.
“They had a good plan,” Franklin said. “They basically said ‘We’re gonna go high-risk, high-reward. Gonna go cover-zero on the defense, and always bring one more than you can block, overload the box, and force you to beat them with the vertical passing game. ...’
“Basically, they said ‘Your receivers won’t beat us, your quarterback won’t make the throws.’”
But they did.
Quarterback Christian Hackenberg threw 13 completions on 30 attempts for 315 yards and three touchdowns; and these were, more often than not, deep shots to allow his wideouts opportunities to make long, contested catches in single coverage.
And they did. While freshman running back Saquon Barkley, aside from a touchdown, was held largely ineffective (he finished with a modest 67 yards on 20 carries and fumbled twice), the wideouts, well, went wide. And very, very long.
Chris Godwin led the attack with four catches for 135 yards, an average of 33.75 yards per catch, and a touchdown. DaeSean Hamilton followed closely with 96 yards on five catches and a touchdown; Geno Lewis made his first appearance in weeks with a 27-yard touchdown snag.
“It was up to us to respond to the challenge,” Godwin said of Maryland’s decision to stick with a loaded box and cover-zero.
Two lucky breaks kept Penn State competitive through an eight-minute span in the first quarter, during which the team attained just two total offensive yards.
First, a Maryland punt bounced off returner DeAndre Thompkins, but when the Terps special teams unit tried to fall on the ball, it squirted out from underneath and rolled out of bounds inside the Penn State 10-yard line.
Then, freshman running back Saquon Barkley fumbled on a carry, but offensive guard Brian Gaia fell on the ball to save the freshman’s first fumble from becoming a turnover.
Maryland’s own turnovers kept the Nittany Lions in it early. Hills was picked off at the Penn State 4-yard-line in the first quarter by Marcus Allen, who also recovered a fumble by Hills that was forced by corner John Reid at the Penn State 16. Allen’s interception was his second of the year.
Late in the first, Penn State took just five plays and 2 1/2 minutes to explode 83 yards down the field. First, Hackenberg rolled out right and connected with Hamilton on a 38-yarder that the wideout, diving, snagged by the tips of his fingers. Two plays later, Hackenberg connected for 40 yards to a streaking, separated Godwin; and Barkley punched in the six-yard score.
But Maryland answered in just over a minute, as Hills threw a 48-yard bomb to Malcom Culmer and ran in the 12-yard score himself on the next snap, to end the first quarter at 7-7.
From there, back and forth it frantically went; more akin to a mosh pit than a see-saw.
Maryland kicker Brad Craddock hit a 44-yard field goal in the second quarter.
Hackenberg connected deep to Saeed Blacknall for 38 yards and then hit Godwin for a 37-yard touchdown pass that the wideout cradled to his abdomen with one hand under coverage that drew a pass interference penalty.
Penn State’s Joey Julius answered Craddock with a 40-yarder of his own with under a minute left in the half to push the Nittany Lions’ halftime lead, 17-13.
In the third, Hills pushed his offense down the field running a quarterback draw three consecutive times to eat up 51 yards. At the door of the Nittany Lions’ end zone, Hill drew the blitz to his left and executed a simple handoff to Brandon Ross, who curled out to the right for the 10-yard score.
Hackenberg responded, hitting Hamilton on a 20-yard touchdown pass with 5:32 left in the third to give Penn State the lead; but Maryland snatched it right back as Hills and his offense ate up 4:32 off the clock and capped the quarter with a 10-yard touchdown pass to DeAndre Lane.
Penn State receiver Geno Lewis snagged a 27-yard touchdown over the top of a Maryland defensive back to open the fourth quarter, and Craddock answered with a field goal to bring the Terps within a point with 10:15 to play, 31-30.
Back-to-back forced fumbles were traded by both teams over a 15-second span.
First, Nick Scott fumbled on a return and Maryland got it back. Then, Hills was hit by Brandon Bell and the ball bounced loose; defensive end Garrett Sickels scooped it up and returned it to the Maryland 28-yard line.
The Terps then held Penn State to a field goal attempt, but Julius missed the 45-yarder and it stayed a one-point game.
A fumbled snap gave Maryland the ball back with five minutes to play at the Penn State 45-yard line, but the Terps were unable to convert after a third-down sack by Carl Nassib, and a too-short fourth down pass.
Maryland had one more shot at the win. Hills fired a pass down the field and it was picked off by Malik Golden to seal the one-point win.
“Those last three or four drives, you know, they score and it’s a different game,” said linebacker Jason Cabinda, who finished the game with eight tackles and a pass breakup.
“It was just so hard-fought. I think in a game like this, every possession matters. Every single play is so important for how the game is going to go, whether it’s a win or a loss. I think that’s what I love so much about this (specific) game.”
Play by play, one possession by one, Penn State scraped through the messy frenzy. And now, by one game, the Nittany Lions are bowl-eligible.
“We are 1-0 this week,” said Franklin, a little tongue-in-cheek. “The most important thing (though), is that we held them to one less point than our offense scored.”