Maryland Football Faces Challenging Road Test against Penn State

(Photo Courtesy of Maryland Athletics.)

Since joining the Big Ten conference in 2014, Maryland football has struggled mightily against Penn State, as the Terps have been outscored 252-69 in six meetings. However, the last three matchups have been the most lopsided, with the Nittany Lions average margin of victory coming by 52.3 points. 

Despite Maryland’s prior struggles against Penn State, Saturday afternoon is different from a conventional Maryland-Penn State matchup. Penn State (0-2 B1G) has unexpectedly struggled to start the season and are in search of their first victory. Maryland (1-1 B1G) is coming off a historic 45-44 comeback win against Minnesota last Friday night and is traveling to State College in search of its second consecutive victory.

Maryland’s offensive firepower was on full display in its first victory, highlighted by career performances from sophomore quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa and redshirt senior running back Jake Funk. While it will be difficult to replicate Friday night’s offensive explosiveness against the Nittany Lions, similar offensive balance will be needed against the talented Penn State defense. Although they’ve allowed 74 points in the first two games, the Nittany Lions defense features talent at all three levels.

Redshirt senior defensive linemen Shaka Toney and redshirt sophomore Jayson Oweh are the tone setters for the Nittany Lions defense up front. Toney is one of Penn State’s most veteran defensive players, displaying his impressive speed and power off the edge with four sacks against No. 13 Indiana in the season opener. While Maryland’s offensive line has played well through the first two weeks, Toney and the Nittany Lions stout defensive front present an entirely new challenge.

“I think [Penn State] has two really elite edge rushers, which will be a great challenge for our tackles Jaelyn Duncan and Spencer Anderson,” head coach Mike Locksley said. “[Shaka Toney] he’s a guy that’s got great length, his speed to power enables him to play firm against the run and be disruptive as a pass rusher. Definitely one of those guys–when you put the tape on–you have to gameplan against him.”

Looking beyond the defensive front, Penn State is missing standout linebacker Micah Parsons who opted out of the 2020 NFL season to prepare for the NFL draft. Stepping up in Parsons absence is junior linebacker Jesse Luketa– who has developed into the new vocal leader of the Nittany Lion defense. 

However, one area where the Terps offense can attack and exploit the Nittany Lions’ defense is the secondary. Last week, one of the best quarterbacks in the country, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, carved up the Nittany Lions secondary throwing for 318 yards and four touchdowns. 

This bodes well for Maryland as Tagovailoa is coming off a historic performance, and the Terps receiving corps is arguably their best position group on the roster. Last week against Minnesota, five different Terp receivers finished with at least three receptions. That balance was headlined by junior Dontay Demus who finished with 101 yards receiving and redshirt junior Jeshuan Jones who finished with 103 yards receiving.

“You got a lot of guys in that receiver room who can make plays,” Demus said. “Just to have them all around the field shows that our offense is very versatile.”

During that impressive fourth quarter against Minnesota, the Terps defense maintained their gaps with all 11 players contributing. Although Maryland’s defensive effort improved late in the game, they’ve still surrendered over 40 points and at least 200 rushing yards in each of the first two games. Also, the Terps defense hasn’t forced any turnovers, struggling to mount consistent pressure on the quarterback with only one sack. 

Normally, Penn State is known for their rushing attack. However, with the absence of running backs Journey Brown and Noah Cain, the Nittany Lions could look to air it out more than usual. Therefore, Maryland’s defensive line will look to create more pressure to disrupt the rhythm of redshirt junior quarterback Sean Clifford. Clifford and junior wide receiver Jahan Dotson have built a strong rapport through two weeks. 

Last week against the Buckeyes, Dotson finished with 144 yards and three touchdowns, finding success against one of the best secondaries in the conference. Complementing Dotson and the talented wide receiver corps is Pat Freiermuth, an imposing 6-foot-5 tight end. Freiermuth is a popular red zone target for Clifford and a tough matchup for opposing defenders with his size and ability to create separation. 

Playing against one of the most explosive skill position units in the Big Ten, Maryland’s linebacking corps and secondary will need excellent communication and strong tackling to limit big plays. For Maryland, that communication all starts with junior linebacker Chance Campbell– the team’s leading tackler and vocal leader.

In order to compile their second consecutive win and the first over Penn State since 2014, the Terps will need to limit big plays defensively and capitalize on big plays offensively. The game is scheduled to kickoff at 3:30 ET and will air on the Big Ten Network from State College.

“Very similar to the way we get rid of a loss, that’s how we approach getting rid of a win and those protocols don’t change,” Locksley said. “That’s part of maturing.”

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