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Penn State-Maryland Game Preview

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Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Nittany Lions attempt to bounce back and earn its first victory of the season outside of the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium.

Penn State (5-2, 2-1) vs. Maryland (2-4, 0-2)

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m., M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore, MD

The Betting Line: Penn State -6.5

TV: ESPN David LaMont (play-by-play), Ray Bentley (analyst), Dawn Davenport (sideline)

WeatherA pleasant and dry fall day with temperatures in the low 60s/upper 50s throughout the game.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 12-8, 2nd Year

OVERALL RECORD: 36-23, 5th Year

VS. MARYLAND: 0-1

Mike Locksley:

MARYLAND RECORD: 0-0, 1st Year (Interim)

OVERALL RECORD: 2-26, Third Year

VS. PENN STATE: 0-0

...NOW THE FUN PART

MARYLAND OFFENSE VS PENN STATE DEFENSE
After spending an evening chasing JT Barrett, the Penn State defense might be in store for more of the same against Maryland quarterback Perry Hills, an extremely gifted athlete and explosive runner. Fortunately for the Nittany Lions, they won't also be focusing on a running back with Ezekiel Elliot's abilities this week, allowing them to concentrate on eliminating Hills' productivity on the ground. Hills is averaging 8 yards per carry and 96.3 rushing yards per game in his three starts for the season. There is little doubt the Nittany Lions will focus on shutting down the Terps rushing attack and challenge Hills to beat the team with his arm- something that may not work out so well for Maryland. In three games, Hills is completing just 47.4 percent of passes for 439 yards to go along with five touchdowns and four interceptions. He especially struggled through the air against Ohio State, connecting on 10 of 27 attempts and throwing two picks. If the Maryland fanbase had their way, they might just quit passing the ball completely.

Senior running back Brandon Ross is Maryland's leading rusher with 453 yards and a 5.4 yard per attempt average. However, he struggled against Ohio State and Michigan, a good sign for Penn State's stout run defense. Hills is the Terps second leading rusher despite only playing in three contests on the season, a testament to his ability as well as an indicator of a poor overall ground game for Maryland.

The Terps do not boast a gamebreaking receiver and are limited in size at the position as only one player on the two-deep is above 5-11. Junior Levern Jacobs and freshman D.J. Moore lead the way, but only average 37 and 32.2 yards per game, respectively. Maryland does have an experienced offensive line with four upperclassmen starters and an interior line comprised of three seniors.

MARYLAND DEFENSE VS PENN STATE OFFENSE
The Terrapins run a standard 4-3 base defense that utilizes a variety of blitzing schemes that has allowed them to create plenty of havoc in the backfield this season. Outside of getting to the quarterback though, Maryland hasn't done much well on the defensive side of the ball. The Terps rank 100th or lower nationally in rushing defense (100), passing defense (104), pass efficiency defense (100), total defense (110) and scoring defense (103). Unfortunately for the Terps, even the sack total that ranks ninth nationally is a bit deceiving as Maryland has been limited to just six sacks in its last three contests against the likes of West Virginia, Michigan and Ohio State.

The key player to watch on Maryland's defense is cornerback Will Likely. What Likely lacks in size, he more than makes up for in blazing speed and coverage skills. He's having a bit of a quiet season with no interceptions through the first six weeks, which is the result of teams wisely trying to avoid his side of the field. Likely is not only good at getting in front of the ball, but once he does he's nearly impossible to catch before hitting paydirt. The obvious match-up for Likely will be Chris Godwin, and Penn State would be wise to look to other targets such as DaeSean Hamilton and Geno Lewis, or even finding new ways to get the ball into the hands of DeAndre Thompkins and Brandon Polk.

Linebacker Jermaine Carter does an excellent job of patrolling the middle and is averaging 10.3 tackles per game on the season. Junior defensive end Yannick Ngakoue could easily find his way to Christian Hackenberg along with defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson, who like Austin Johnson has the quickness to get into the backfield from the interior. Sophomore defensive end Jesse Aniebonam could also give Penn State's offensive line fits on Saturday.

While Maryland's defense doesn't appear terribly impressive on the stat sheet, Penn State's offense has a tendency to make even the leakiest of the defenses look like a concrete wall. Fortunately, a healthy Saquon Barkley gives the Nittany Lions a tremendous boost and big-play threat. While Barkley has clearly established himself as the best back on the team (and one of the premier RBs in the nation as just a true freshman), it will be important for Penn State to have a healthy Akeel Lynch who can share more of the load. Lynch is a great all-purpose back in his own right who can keep Barkley fresh while wearing down the defense.

SPECIAL TEAMS:
Maryland has one of the best kickers in the nation in Brad Craddock. The Aussie has uncharacteristically missed an extra point and chip shot field goal this season, but if the game once again comes down to a clutch kick, the Terps will be in great shape. Freshman punter Nicolas Pritchard has a strong leg but lacks consistency at times. He is averaging 39.8 yards per punt and has a long of 55 yards on the season. Even if Pritchard does not have his best showing, he'll still likely give Maryland a leg up in the field position battle, as Penn State's punting situation can be classified as an unmitigated disaster at this point in the season. Whether it be Chris Gulla or Daniel Pasquiarello, the shanked punts continue to regularly put the defense in bad spots each week. At this point, it should be counted as a disadvantage for the Nittany Lions until there is fresh blood at the position in 2016.

In addition to being an exceptional defensive back, Likely is among the most electrifying return men is college football. He boasts a 20.8 average on kickoffs and 22.6 yards per punt return and has already returned two punts to the house in the first half of the season. He could become a huge factor on Saturday as Penn State's kick units have struggled with consistency in recent weeks. Penn State kicker Joey Julius will need to get the ball out of the end zone to avoid any potential disasters, while there's a good chance many of the punts will land out of bounds either way.

Penn State's return teams have dipped in productivity in recent weeks after an outstanding start to the season. Saturday could be an excellent opportunity to get back on track, especially on kickoffs as the Terps are allowing 21.4 yards per return.

PREDICTION

PENN STATE-24 MARYLAND-16
At first glance, Penn State should come away victorious on Saturday as they earn bowl eligibility. However, there are two intangibles that should worry Nittany Lions fans. For one, interim
Mike Locksley will be leading the Terps for the first time following the dismissal of Randy Edsall. Without knowing anything about what Locksley may bring to the table, interim coaches have a way of unexpectedly igniting a fire under teams after a change of leadership. The other is that Maryland views this game as its biggest of the entire season for some reason, meaning the Terps will be coming off its most-focused week of practice and should be the best version of themselves on Saturday. Throw in the fact that Penn State is recovering from a tough night game defeat on the road while Maryland had an extra week of rest, and the intangibles could clearly be in the Terps favor.

While I wouldn't be shocked if Penn State struggles, the match-ups appear to be in their favor, especially considering Maryland's dependence on the running game and inability to stop the run on defense. Barkley picks up 165 yards on the ground, Hamilton has a game reminiscent of 2014 when he lead the Big Ten in receiving while Carl Nassib pads his nation-leading stat line with two sacks and a forced fumble.