PHILADELPHIA (CBS Philly) – Friday night, the Penn State-Maryland rivalry picks up with its latest chapter, as the No. 12 Nittany Lions head to Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium to battle the Terrapins.
Last year’s matchup saw the Nittany Lions rip off a 38-3 win in front of the fans in Happy Valley. But both teams are vastly different in terms of roster composition this season. For one, Penn State’s offense is still breaking in new quarterback Sean Clifford, who took over from all-time program leader Trace McSorley. Add in a stable of running backs, from which no true bell cow back has emerged as of yet, and you have an offense that, while good enough to win the first three games of the season, is still figuring out it’s identity.
“The thing about Penn State is they don’t have anything negative to show thus far. They haven’t fallen prey to anything they haven’t done well. For them, if you are looking for something to really improve upon, it’s throwing the football down the field,” said CBS Sports Network college football analyst Kevin Carter. “They beat Idaho and Buffalo, and then you really struggle to put points on the board against Pitt. You have had a bye week to work some things out.”
The big plays have been there for Penn State’s offense, as they have been in years past. But they have come largely against inferior competition in Idaho and Buffalo. The Pitt game was a bit more of a slog, with Clifford completing under 50 percent of his passes and averaging just 7.4 adjusted air yards per attempt. He missed speedy receiver KJ Hamler on one or two occasions, which could have blown things open. Whether the offense can find and connect on a few more of those big plays will be something to watch for.
One thing is for sure of entering Friday night’s game, the atmosphere will be raucous, as Maryland is asking fans to wear black to the stadium, creating “blackout” conditions for the prime-time contest on Friday night. In the national spotlight, the Terps will get their chance to prove that the loss to Temple was more fluke than indicative of future performance.
“We don’t really know who Maryland is. If it’s the one that went out and scored 142 points in the first two weeks. Or is it the one that lost 20-17 to Temple two weeks ago,” said CBS Sports Network college football analyst Kevin Carter. “Rushing the football is going to be key to them moving the ball and possessing the football.”
The Terps’ running game has been one of the best in the country through five weeks this season, racking up 277 yards per game and averaging 5.99 yards per carry. The unit did lose some of its firepower with the news this week that Jake Funk, who was averaging over 10 yards per carry, is out for the rest of the year with a torn ACL. However, bell cow back Anthony McFarland, combined with Tayon Fleet-Davis and Javon Leake, forms a potent trio capable of breaking big plays.
However, defending against the run has been a strength for the Lions so far this season, allowing opponents just over 70 yards per game and a minuscule 1.9 yards per carry through three games. Linebacker Micah Parsons leads a stout front seven that hasn’t allowed its early-season opponents to get much done rushing the football. That, according to Carter, is the key to this game.
“If you’re Penn State, stop the run. Make Maryland be creative in how they have to move the football down the field,” said Carter. “Maryland likes to be creative and be a chunk-play offense.”
Things in this game may fall more on transfer quarterback Justin Jackson, who is completing just 51 percent of his passes this season. His struggles were most evident in the team’s game against Maryland, when the offensive line allowed the Owls to get consistent pressure on the quarterback, forcing four sacks and Jackson completing just 15 of his 38 attempts. The Nittany Lions, with pass rushers Yetur Gross-Matos and Shaka Toney, rank 13th in the country in sacks so far this year, making the Terps’ pass protection of even more importance this week, if they are to have a chance to win. In the end, Carter thinks Maryland has a slight edge in this game, due to the consistency they have shown in the running game so far this season.
“It’s really going to come down to who can move the football, and to me that advantage goes to Maryland, because they are leading the Big Ten in rushing,” said Carter.
The Nittany Lions and Terps kick off this year’s edition of their rivalry matchup at 8 p.m. ET on Friday.