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Game Preview: Penn State vs. Maryland

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Can the Lions build on last weekend’s emotional win?

NCAA Football: Maryland at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

After grabbing their first Big Ten win of the season in a dramatic battle against Minnesota, our Nittany Lions turn their attention to the upstart Maryland Terrapins, who are undefeated but untested under new head coach D.J. Durkin.

Penn State (3-2) vs. Maryland (4-0)

Kickoff: Noon, Beaver Stadium, State College, PA

The Betting Line: Maryland -1.5

TV: BTN - Kevin Kugler (play-by-play), Matt Millen (analyst), Lisa Byington (sideline)

Weather: Highs in the low-60s with a 50 percent chance of rain

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 17-14, 3rd Year

OVERALL RECORD: 41-29, 6th Year

VS. MARYLAND: 1-1

D.J. Durkin:

MARYLAND RECORD: 4-0, 1st Year

OVERALL RECORD: 4-0, 1st Year

VS. PENN STATE: First Meeting

...NOW THE FUN PART

MARYLAND OFFENSE VS PENN STATE DEFENSE

It’s been all about the running game for Durkin’s Terps so far. Even in its one close call of the season on the road against Central Florida, the team still ran the ball twice as much as it threw. So here we are again with Penn State and its beleaguered front seven needing to slow down another high-volume rushing attack.

Last weekend worked out okay, as the Lions “only” allowed 228 rushing yards on 48 carries to a Minnesota team that probably had designs on gaining the kind of yardage that Pitt and Michigan racked up on the Lions. If the young defensive line and linebackers can play the bend-but-don’t-break game again, Penn State can avoid being embarrassed by Maryland the way Purdue was on Saturday.

The Terps present a fresh challenge, though, thanks to guys like sophomore halfback Ty Johnson, who ran for 204 yards and a pair of scores on just seven totes against the Boilers. Even against a perennially rebuilding program like Purdue, that 29.1 yards per carry average is pretty scary.

As dangerous as Johnson is, he’s only third on his team in carries behind quarterback Perry Hills and fellow halfback Lorenzo Harrison, who leads everyone with 38 carries and four touchdowns. The freshman is as close to a bell cow as Maryland has, rushing for at least 60 yards and a score in every game.

Penn State’s goal in this game should be to force Hills to shoulder as much as the offensive load as possible, but that didn’t work out so well last year when he rushed for 124 yards on 26 carries and completed 19-of-28 passes for 225 yards. If not for Hills’s three interceptions, the Terps may have waltzed out of Baltimore with their second straight win over Penn State. Those passing numbers are especially jarring since overall Hills completed just half of his passes in 2015. This year, he’s looked much better with 45 completions on 73 throws with five touchdowns and just one interception, but a lot of that came in Maryland’s first two games against Howard and Florida International.

The defensive game plan for Penn State will rely a lot on Marcus Allen, who just set a career high with 22 tackles against Minnesota. He’ll be relied on once again to step up and stop the run without bailing out and allowing the Lions to be burned by the big play.

MARYLAND DEFENSE VS PENN STATE OFFENSE

Maryland is currently second in the Big Ten with 3.1 yards allowed per rush and third in the conference with 5.6 yards allowed per pass attempt. Those numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt because of the competition (or lack thereof) that the Terps have faced so far, but the defense isn’t going to stop feeling confident unless Penn State gives it a reason to.

For the Lions to assert themselves on offense in this game, they’ve got to be more efficient than they were during their first two conference games. If the Minnesota game was decided by which team had the most first downs, Penn State would have lost 31-19, but the Lions came up with enough big plays to pull ahead despite not being able to move the ball as well as the Gophers did.

In fact, Penn State is at the bottom in the Big Ten in third down conversion percentage, with just a quarter of their third downs turning into first downs. It certainly doesn’t help that the Lions were squashed by Michigan, but you’d still expect a team with weapons like Saquon Barkley and Chris Godwin to convert more third downs than offensive juggernauts like Rutgers and Northwestern.

It will be interesting to see if offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead continues to try to push the ball downfield or if he focuses more on short passes that will help control the clock against a Maryland squad that will be trying to do the same. Against Minnesota, the Lions held the ball for just 23 minutes and 11 seconds. It’s not as though big plays are bad. That’s the football equivalent of a baseball fan wanting his team to hit fewer home runs. But just like how in baseball a team can hit lots of home runs and still get hits with runners in scoring position, Penn State can make big plays and also convert on third down. Look for that to be a focus on Saturday.

Trying to thwart the Lions and put pressure on Trace McSorley will be defensive end Jesse Aniebonam and linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. The pair have combined for seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss so far, so they’ll be looking to take advantage of Penn State’s young offensive line that has had trouble opening holes for Barkley and creating time for McSorley in conference play.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Maryland kicker Adam Greene doesn’t appear to be the second coming of Brad Craddock, who sent Penn State fans home in tears with a game-winning field goal in 2014. Greene has made all 21 of his extra points this year, but he’s just 4-for-6 on field goals. One of those misses came from more than 50 yards away, but the other was inside of 40 yards. You can excuse Penn State fans for not being very impressed when their own kicker Tyler Davis has hit on every kick he’s tried in 2016. The Lions needed all three of his field goals and both of his extra points to pull through last Saturday.

Will Likely is primarily a defensive player who could force some throws away from Godwin and into the direction of DaeSean Hamilton or DeAndre Thompkins. However, he’s also a special teams standout who has returned two kicks this season for a total of 103 yards. Joey Julius has made waves lately due to his physical play on the field, but in this game his most important job will be kicking the ball either away from Likely or through the end zone.

PREDICTION

Maryland 30, Penn State 27

It’s true that we don’t know how good the Terrapins are yet, but I found the way they dismantled Purdue with a dominant rushing game and smothering defense to be quite impressive. That doesn’t make Maryland a lock to defeat Penn State in this game, and I’m still kind of surprised that the Lions are home underdogs, but let’s face it: Penn State was very fortunate to escape the Minnesota game with the Governor’s Victory Bell in hand.

Maybe the Lions will start to figure out their third down issues against a Maryland defense that hasn’t been tested very hard yet. Maybe Penn State’s rush defense finally shuts an opponent down and forces its quarterback to win the game. Maybe Saquon Barkley looks like a Heisman Trophy candidate for more than just two or three plays in a game.

All those things are possible, and all those possibilities make us excited to watch Penn State play football, but I’m not going to believe in those things until they start to happen, so Maryland is the pick.