The Maryland gameplan left its cornerbacks on islands.
The Terrapins overloaded the box, dialed up their share of blitzes and played man-to-man press coverage against Penn State’s wide receivers.
“Basically they said, your receivers won’t beat us,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.
The Nittany Lions receiving corps responded to the challenge and accounted for the team’s final three touchdowns in a 31-30 win Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium. Geno Lewis hauled in the game’s final touchdown early in the fourth quarter, and Chris Godwin caught four passes for 135 yards and a score. Penn State beat Maryland’s secondary deep as they averaged a season-best 24.2 yards per catch and four different receivers pulled down passes that picked up more than 20 yards.
The receivers had struggled to create separation throughout the season. The group came into Saturday averaging 12.9 yards per catch.
With a bye week to prepare for Penn State, Maryland decided to force quarterback Christian Hackenberg to throw the ball downfield
“I think if we go back and watch film, the amount of Cover 0 with man, no deep safeties or Cover 1 man with press corners, they hadn’t lived on that,” Franklin said. “And to be honest with you, usually when you play someone like that and you burn ‘em a couple times deep, they stop.
“And they didn’t.”
And Penn State made Maryland pay.
Hackenberg started 0 for 4 before finding DaeSean Hamilton deep for a 38-yard gain. After Saquon Barkley was stuffed for no gain, Hackenberg looked downfield again.
This time, Godwin came open after burning Maryland defensive back Anthony Nixon. Hackenberg lobbed a pass downfield and Godwin pulled it in for a 40-yard gain to set up Penn State’s first touchdown, a 6-yard run by Barkley.
“It’s tough to be super successful and go out there and throw 70 percent completion percentage against that type of look,” said Hackenberg, who completed 13 of 29 passes for 315 yards and three touchdowns. “We knew what we needed to do, we needed to take our shots and we needed to convert on a couple of those, and we were able to do so.”
Godwin made perhaps the most impressive grab of the day for the Nittany Lions’ second touchdown.
He battled for position with Nixon in the end zone. Nixon held Godwin’s left arm as the ball arrived. But the Penn State wide receiver secured the grab with his right arm and hand as he fell to the turf.
The 37-yard touchdown reception gave Penn State a 14-13 lead in the second quarter.
“I had to do whatever I could to make the play,” Godwin said.
The wide receivers continued to make big plays in the back-and-forth contest.
The Nittany Lions retook the lead in the third quarter, going up 24-20 after Hackenberg connected with Hamilton for a 20-yard touchdown.
Then Godwin came through again to keep what proved to be the game-winning drive alive.
The Maryland fans rose to their feet with 15 seconds left in the third quarter, before a crucial third down, hoping the Terrapins defense would get a stop. Hackenberg signaled for a timeout.
When the Maryland defense returned to the field, players on the sideline turned to the crowd and waved their arms and towels. The Terrapins held a three-point lead and could take momentum into the final 15 minutes, but Godwin kept the Nittany Lions drive alive.
Godwin caught a slant at the Penn State 40-yard line, picked up the first down and got to the Maryland 38-yard line for a 27-yard gain.
On the fourth play of the fourth quarter, Hackenberg threw a pass toward the end zone. Lewis made a leaping grab over Maryland cornerback Sean Davis for a 27-yard touchdown. Penn State led 31-27 with 13:39 left.
“That’s Geno going up and making a play,” Godwin said. “He has great ball skills and great big-play ability.”
It was Lewis’ seventh catch and his first touchdown of the season.
And it was the difference on the scoreboard Saturday.
“Geno hasn’t had a whole lot of opportunities lately,” Franklin said. “But Hack goes to him in a man-to-man press man situation and it’s a 50-50 ball and Geno goes up and snags it, so really really proud of him and how he handled that.
“And I love that Hack has the confidence in those guys to do it.”