A great way to gain an appropriate perspective as to what was happening in the wild, gritty, manic mess that was Penn State’s one-point win in Baltimore on Saturday would not actually be to watch what was happening on the field.
Instead, one could sit in the spot I was given inside the press box at M&T Bank Stadium, eyes closed, and just listen.
Offensive coordinator John Donovan, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and a gaggle of assistants were sitting in a booth next to the press box, separated only by a sliver of glass with the lower half frosted, about 6 feet from where I sat.
Throughout the game, which was a back-and-forth and absolutely unpredictable affair, those in that group yelled their collective heads off — expletives here, checks and personnel calls there, and of course, high-pitched screaming and cursing each time Maryland dual-threat quarterback Perry Hills took off with the ball. Loud cheering when Penn State receivers pulled down deep ball after deep ball. Groaning and swearing whenever quarterback Christian Hackenberg was sacked. Absolute pin-drop silence when Andrew Nelson went down with an injury. Table-slamming punctuated by a certain repeated expletive when Nick Scott fumbled on a kick return.
It was fantastic, frankly. Because after weeks of staying on message and producing buzzwords in faceless teleconference calls, and giving the same vague answers about playcalling and offensive performance, this was a true look into what it is like for these coaches from week to week. They were reacting, possibly, in the same way many in the stadium or at home watching on their televisions were reacting, and it was strangely humanizing.
And, the shouting, which switched between furious and elated seemingly after each series, seemed to sum up that frenetic game perfectly.
Maryland largely lined up its defense in cover-zero, meaning they kept the box loaded up with players in an attempt to stuff the Penn State run, and show blitz to Hackenberg, and left just one player to cover each receiver. They arranged in cover-one a bit as well, leaving a “floating safety” who could offer help if needed.
“They basically said, ‘We’re going to go high-risk, high-reward,’ ” head coach James Franklin said after the game. “And force you to beat them with the vertical passing game. ... Basically, they said, ‘Your receivers won’t beat us, and your quarterback won’t consistently make the throws.’”
In the first quarter, Hackenberg tried for the short gains while feeling out the Terps’ defense. As in previous games, he was unsuccessful on quick, short passes, and threw six incompletions to open the game. Then, Penn State began a late-quarter drive with 5:07 left in the opening period.
That’s when Hackenberg went deep, first with a 38-yard bomb to DaeSean Hamilton and then with a 40-yarder to Chris Godwin that set up the Nittany Lions’ first touchdown.
The offense had found what would ultimately be Maryland’s biggest weak spot that game. But instead of adjusting coverage, the Terps stayed in cover-zero and cover-one.
“Usually, when you play someone like that and you burn ’em a couple times, they stop,” said Franklin. “And they didn’t.”
From there, nine of Hackenberg’s 13 total completions went for 20 yards or more, and 10 were 17 yards or more, as the junior bit off huge chunks of the field on his way to a 315-yard, three touchdown performance.
Two of the touchdowns were 50/50 balls, and each time, the receiver came down with it — once, Godwin even had one of his arms pinned to his side by a defensive back, and still pulled in the ball with the other arm.
“I knew I had to do whatever I could to make the play,” he said after the game.
Added Franklin, “It’s great that (Hackenberg) has the confidence in those guys to make those plays.”
Hamilton said that, aside from the Pinstripe Bowl last year, this was the “most fun” the receivers have had as a unit this season.
• While Penn State’s punting was far from extraordinary, Daniel Pasquariello did just enough, and was backed up by his coverage unit, to hold the nation’s top return man, Will Likely, to just 24 yards on three returns (and managed to kick away from him three of six attempts).
• In the fourth quarter, Penn State scored on its first drive to lead Maryland 31-27.
Kicker Joey Julius knocked the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, and gave the Terps field position at the 35-yard-line as a result. Hills then executed a 43-yard pass to receciver Taivon Jacobs to get his team to the Penn State 22-yard line, and the Nittany Lions defense was able to hold Maryland to just two yards apiece on the following snaps to force kicker Brad Craddock to attempt a field goal.
Grant Haley was flagged for roughing Craddock on the attempt, and the kicker lay still on the field as trainers attended to him until he was helped up and walked off the field under his own power. As soon as he got to the sideline, Craddock made a speedy recovery and hustled to his practice tee to practice his kicks, while Penn State was able to stop the Terps from scoring a touchdown from the 9-yard line. Craddock then jogged out again, and made the following field goal to bring Maryland within one — a huge bullet dodged by Penn State, which could’ve instead ended up down three points.
The teams traded turnovers on their respective series, and then Penn State made two fourth-down stops and picked off Hills with 1:21 left to play to seal the win. All told, the Nittany Lions forced five three-and-outs, two fourth-down stops, a fumble recovery and an interception in the fourth quarter alone.
• Hackenberg has thrown just two interceptions on 209 pass attempts this season, both of which came in the first game of the season. Since Week 1, he’s thrown 10 touchdowns and no interceptions, to aid his team in a plus-nine turnover margin that is tied for 10th-best in the nation.
• Penn State’s third-down conversion percentage continues to sink. Against Maryland, the team managed to convert just 3 of 13 attempts, and now has a 27.8 conversion percentage, which ranks No. 125 in the nation and is better than just two other teams — Miami (Ohio) and Kent State.
• Against dual-threat quarterbacks, Penn State’s defense has struggled mightily.
Before taking on Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett and Maryland’s Perry Hills, the Nittany Lions had the nation’s 10th-best rushing defense. Penn State proceeded to give up 556 yards on the ground in two weeks, 326 yards of which came from the two quarterbacks. In the five games prior, the defense had given up an average of just 117 rushing yards per game.
As it stands, Penn State’s rushing defense now ranks No. 57 in the nation. The good news for the Nittany Lions, though, is that they have no more dual-threats remaining on the schedule.
Franklin didn’t have much to say about the yardage allowed in the past two weeks.
“We held (Maryland) to one less point than we got,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”
It’s natural, as a player grows, to have a bad game or two.
True freshman Saquon Barkley’s came against Maryland, after the running back was fresh off a 194-yard rushing performance against No. 1 Ohio State.
Barkley fumbled twice in the first half, just the second and third times a running back has done so this year, and only one was lost. He was also held to 67 yards rushing on 20 carries, though he did effectively execute the Wildcat twice.
While some may have thought Barkley was showing his young age for the first time this season, senior center Angelo Mangiro had the freshman’s back.
“You say he showed his age, but I would disagree,” said Mangiro. “He didn’t handle (the mistakes) as a freshman. He kept the course, it was a long game, and leaned on his teammates. And we had his back, you know, and he had some big runs for us in the second half.”
This section is necessary this week for one reason: 6-foot-8, 300-pound left tackle Paris Palmer was moved to slot receiver on a single play on Saturday, presumably as a decoy. He wasn’t targeted for a pass by Hackenberg — instead the snap was taken by Barkley for a short gain — but many might have lost themselves in day-dreaming about what may have happened.
“Yeah, you know, Paris Palmer is 6-foot-8,” joked Franklin after the game, “We thought we’d use him as a dual-threat guy...”
Penn State will host Illinois at noon on Saturday on ESPN2.