After the teams’ past two meetings were decided by just a point, it’s safe to assume that this weekend’s Penn State-Maryland game will be a wild one.
The Terps bring a fast-paced, high-scoring offense to Beaver Stadium on Saturday at noon, and, in head coach D.J. Durkin’s first year, they are undefeated through four games and have racked up 173 points in four games.
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After consistently starting slow through five games this season, getting out of the gates quickly is perhaps even more crucial this week. Maryland has outscored its opponents 105-14 in the first half this year, while Penn State (3-2) has been outscored by a combined 38 points in opening halves.
James Franklin introduced what he calls a “chaos period” to practice this week, in which players are forced to come out of warmups and stretches with game-time speed. He has designed the period to catch the offensive and defensive coordinators off-guard, and make them adjust accordingly.
Last year against Maryland, running back Saquon Barkley was limited in the otherwise wild, back-and-forth affair and had just 65 yards on 20 carries a week after putting up 194 against Ohio State. Teams have keyed in on Barkley in each of Penn State’s five games this season, loading the box with extra defenders to force quarterback Trace McSorley to attack outside.
The redshirt sophomore quarterback leads the Big Ten in passing with 1,284 yards, and will face a pass rush averaging 3 1/2 sacks per game.
Capitalizing on third down will be necessary for Penn State as well, as the team has converted on just 15 of 60 third-down attempts this season (second-worst in the nation), and Maryland forces three-and-outs on 38.8 percent of opposing drives.
Penn State’s defensive line is beginning to mature, but that process has been forced to speed up with the absence of the three veteran starting linebackers behind them.
Opponents have done well on the ground against the Nittany Lions’ front, running for an average of 216.6 yards per game and more than 300 yards on two occasions.
Behind freshman running back Lorenzo Harrison and sophomore back Ty Johnson, Maryland is averaging 300 rushing yards per game (with a little padding from a 400-yard rushing performance against Purdue last week).
In fact, against Purdue, Johnson averaged a record 29.1 yards per carry with 204 yards on seven carries with two touchdowns.
Shoring up the run defense will require strict gap accountability by the defensive line, and discipline in wrapping up the rusher among the young linebackers behind them.
Maryland is also averaging 43.4 points per game behind senior quarterback Perry Hills, who averages 189.7 passing yards per game. His top target will “likely” be Will Likely, who is also a threat on special teams.
Containment on the return has been an issue in all but one game for Penn State this season. Against Maryland the unit will face Likely, who is one of the nation’s top returners. Despite the fact that teams have been kicking away from Likely, he averages 51.1 yards per kickoff return on two opportunities, including a 64-yard long.
Penn State’s Tyler Davis could have another crucial opportunity in what is expected to be a close game. The former preferred walk-on kicker has not missed in his career, including knocking in a 40-yard field goal to send his team to overtime against Minnesota and break the school record for consecutive makes with 17 on 17 attempts.