One of the pitfalls of being a professional writer* is that sometimes you need to do things that you do not want to do. Today's game recap is the perfect example of that. When the M&T Bank Stadium clock hit triple zeros yesterday, mercifully ending something that only vaguely resembled a football game, the last thing I really wanted to do was talk about whatever it was. A day later, not much has changed.
Yes, we can all be happy that Penn State secured their sixth win of the season, and third of the B1G year. The former matching last year's regular season total, and the latter surpassing last season's 2-6 conference mark. But man, was that some ugly, uh, football. The Lions put the ball on the ground four times with fumbles, losing three. Coming into the game, PSU only had six total fumbles in seven games (losing just two). The "host" Terrapins were not much better in the ball security department, losing two fumbles, and throwing three interceptions.
Dangerous Maryland kick returner Will Likely was kept in check, both in special teams, and on his five offensive touches. He averaged but 8 yards on his 5 punt returns, and 25 on his four kickoff returns. However, putting foot to ball remained an issue for the Lions. Punter Daniel Pasquariello did well to keep the ball away from Likely in dangerous positions, but depsite a 55 yarder on his first punt, averaged only 39 per kick. Joey Julius was perfect on his four extra points, good from 40 yards, but missed from 44, and put a kickoff so far out of bounds (the Terrapin mascot was able to cleanly receive it).
Maryland was able to establish a dangerous run/pass combination with quarterback Perry Hills from the opening kickoff. The Terrapins took the ball all the way down to the Penn State 30 on their first drive of the afternoon, before losing five yards on a false start, and six more on a screen pass that was well diagnosed by the Lions' defense. On the next snap, Hills threw into double coverage, where Grant Haley was able to intercept the ball at the three yard line.
In what must have felt like deja vu, the Lions would find themselves with a long field, a week after an average starting position of the 16 yard line in Columbus. PSU went three and out, and the Terps would again drive into opposing territory before going backwards, and punting, pinning Penn State at their own 14. Three more plays, and zero yards later, the Lions sent the ball back to Maryland.
Hills lead the offense into the red zone for the first time on the day, but the first of Maryland's fumbles came just as it looked like they were poised to take the lead. John Reid forced the Terrapin quarterback's fumble, and Marcus Allen recovered, setting up what would be the first scoring drive of the day. It would take only five plays for the Lions to drive 81 yards. With the Terps selling out against Saquon Barkley, and what has become a potent PSU rushing attack, Christian Hackenberg took advantage of single coverage outside. First up was sophomore receiver DaeSean Hamilton, who hauled in a 38 yard pass, then Chris Godwin for 40 yards, down to the Maryland 6. Barkley capped the drive with the score.
As was the case for most of the afternoon, Maryland responded to falling behind with a score of their own. It all happened in just three plays, keyed by a 48 yard Hills pass to Malcolm Culmer, who got behind safety Marcus Allen. Hills would go in from 12 yards out on the next play. Two Brad Craddock field goals later, the first keyed by a Saquon Barkley fumble, set the Terrapins up with a 13-7 lead.
Penn State responded to the six point deficit in emphatic fashion, thanks once again, to the long pass. Hackenberg found Saed Blacknall for 38 yards, and Godwin for 37 and a touchdown to put the Lions back ahead by a single point. A quick three and out from the Lions defense lead to the Julius 40 yard field goal, and somehow, a 17-13 Penn State lead at halftime. All oft this would set up a crazy, back and forth, heartburn-inducing final 30 minutes.
Penn State went three and out to start the second half, and relinquished the lead to Maryland on the subsequent drive. That would be the first of four consecutive scoring drives (two by each team), ultimately ending with Penn State on top 31-27. The Nittany Lion touchdowns came courtesy of the long pass, with one going to DaeSean Hamilton, and the latter to junior Geno Lewis. As was the case for much of the day, the Lions receivers took advantage of their one on one coverage on both scores, and made plays on well thrown passes. Credit Hackenberg as well, for standing in the pocket and taking hits to make plays.
Maryland closed the game to the final 31-30 score on a Craddock field goal, but a Grant Haley roughing the kicker call gave the Terps a chance to take the lead. The defense held, including a near pick six from Haley, and forced another field goal.
It was not easy down the stretch, however, as Nick Scott fumbled the ensuing kickoff, in shades of last year's game, setting up Maryland with at worst a chip shot field goal to take the lead. On the first snap after Scott's fumble, however, junior linebacker Brandon Bell came in untouched from the left side, and forced a Hills fumble. Garrett Sickels recovered the loose ball and returned deep inside Maryland territory. Three incomplete passes later, PSU would settle for a 45 yard Julius field goal attempt that sailed wide left.
The Penn State defense was again strong, ultimately forcing a fourth down interception of Hills by senior cornerback Trevor Williams. The Lions did convert one first down, but facing third and nine at midfield with the Terrapins showing an all out blitz, Hackenberg took his eye off of the shotgun snap, leading to a fumble and new life for Maryland. Penn State's defense again held, forcing a turnover a on downs, and giving the offense a chance to run out the clock with one first down.
In a situation eerily similar to last year, the Lions faced a third and six, after two Barkley runs, and Maryland holding onto one timeout. Rather than run, and force a timeout, John Donovan put the ball in the hands of his quarterback, who just missed tight end Mike Gesicki on an out, forcing PSU to punt. Pasquariello forced a fair catch from Likely at the 25, putting the ball in the hands of Hills and the Terrapin offense. On the first play, he overshot his receiver, and Malik Golden came up with the game sealing interception.
*on the internet on a blog
Three Completely Unrelated, Probably Useless Thoughts
1. Law dictates one of these thoughts be dedicated to Christian Hackenberg. I do not think anyone would say it was Hack's finest day, but after a slow start, PSU was able to figure out what Maryland wanted to do on defense, and adjusted. That adjustment was, in short, screw it, go deep. We have clamored for more deep shots all year, taking advantage of an athletic group of receivers, and yesterday we saw that. When you have one on one coverage outside, oftentimes it is just a matter of giving your guys a chance to make the plays. Yesterday, they did that.
2. For really the first time in his career, Saquon Barkley struggled. That is not all on him, nor is it all on the offensive line. Maryland clearly came into the game with a plan of not letting the freshman sensation beat them. There was a lot of run blitzing, and 8-9 guys in the box, leading to Hack's big yardage day. It will be interesting to see what the Lions face the rest of this season from opposing defenses, with the threat of the deep pass we saw in response.
3. Credit the captains, coaches, and really the team as a whole, for their response to adversity yesterday. Against Temple, and again last week against Ohio State, we saw the team fall apart, in a sense, when things didn't go well. Penn State responded to turnovers, lost leads, and the general silliness we saw yesterday by making plays and staying in the game. For a young team, that's a positive sign.