COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- C.J. Brown remembers it like it was yesterday, the day his Maryland recruiter and future quarterback coach/offensive coordinator James Franklin blew into his home on his official visit with the passion and enthusiasm he said he had during his multiple coaching stops at College Park and now brings to State College, Pa., as Penn State's head coach.
"Everyone knows he is a very competitive guy,” Brown said this week in looking back. “And when he and Coach [Ralph] Friedgen came to the house for the house visit, you know after dinner….well, we had a ping pong table in the basement. So he challenged me to a game of ping pong. And I ended up beating him because he said he was going to beat me. He was mad, but looking back I don't know if that was his way of getting me to commit [laugh] or what. But it was pretty heated, I was pretty nervous, but I got the 'W."
There are story-lines on top of story-lines this week as the two schools rekindle their series with Maryland a first-year member of the Big Ten. It's a lopsided one, with PSU holding a 35-1-1 all-time mark, the one thing Terps head man Randy Edsall reminded his troops of this week as PSU game prep began at College Park.
Beyond Franklin, there's PSU offensive coordinator John Donovan, who served as running backs coach under Ralph Friedgen before following Franklin to Vanderbilt and Happy Valley; there's Terrapin lifer Dwight Galt, who served for decades as Maryland's strength and conditioning coach after graduating from the school, while his two sons played football at Maryland and his wife a year of basketball at College Park under Chris Weller. The list goes on, to include PSU football chief of staff, Jemal Griffin, who began as an assistant recruiting coordinator under Friedgen, out of Baltimore's Woodlawn High School, and whose eldest son is a freshman football player at Morgan State, under former Terps receivers coach Lee Hull, who was with the program a year ago.
Layer in all the Maryland natives on the Penn State roster, and the on-going recruiting battles between the schools, and it should add up to a hearty mix when the two teams go at it Nov. 1 at Beaver Stadium. And in possibly even heartier weather conditions, with possible flurries, all for the first time since 1993 when PSU beat Maryland, 70-3, at PSU.
And there’s perhaps still-frosty conditions on the other side, after Franklin was let go four years ago as head-coach-in-waiting at Maryland after the Military Bowl season, Friedgen’s last, when the new administration went in another direction.
But most of that talk was put on the back- burner on Oct. 28 at the Terps opening presser of the week, as Maryland (5-3, 2-2 Big Ten) is looking to first get its house in order after the 52-7 thrashing at Wisconsin last week.
Penn State could also be seething, losers of three straight to arrive at 4-3, 1-3, but also buoyed by the confidence of taking No. 20 Ohio State to double-overtime in a 31-24 loss Saturday night at Beaver Stadium before raucous "White-Out" conditions.
Either way, it felt more like "old home week" the way the Pennsylvania native Brown spoke of his old recruiter and mentor, as well as the respect he and other Terps have for a program that Maryland hasn’t played since most were born.
Edsall also spoke of his respect for the program, but also the fact he grew up a Terps fan and never attended a PSU game as a youth. The Terps players, well, much the same as they are only beginning to learn of the series that ended decades ago, one that is more on alumni and boosters’ minds than perhaps their own.
"I was recruited by Coach ‘Frank.’ I was here for two years with him, and I was here with him and Coach Friedgen," Brown said. "And I really look forward to the opportunity. Obviously, we play both their teams, but they will always have a place in my heart. Obviously they were the ones that took a chance on me and gave me this opportunity."
Brown said he got to catch up some with Franklin at Big Ten Media Day in Chicago in the pre-season, "and he is still a great guy. I have a lot of respect for him. But we're just trying to go out and play football games, he is doing his best over there and I'm here, I'm happy, and I'm just trying to win football games."
The only Pennsylvania native the Terps rolled into interviews this week was Brown, who said he grew up more of a Pitt fan being from Western Pennsylvania, though he still has some friends and former high school opponents on the Nittany Lions’ roster.
"Growing up, being on the western side of the state, it was definitely more Pitt than Penn State," Brown added. "But I got a lot of friends, family members that have gone to Penn State. Obviously a lot of my high school teammates, classmates. Penn State is rich in tradition, and obviously it is going to carry, speak for itself, in the state of Pennsylvania. A lot of people bleed the blue and white."
Brown said he will have some "15-20" family and friends in his crew at Beaver Stadium this weekend and is still working out all the details. He caught most of PSU's overtime loss to Ohio State Saturday night after returning home from the Wisconsin debacle. He said they have to get ready for PSU and its own great venue, capacity 106,572.
"I saw most of it. It was a tough, hard-fought game," Brown said. "And especially the crowd kept them in it. It really, I think the crowd helped out Penn State, especially it being a night game there. It was a great game to watch."
Terps junior running back Brandon Ross, who struggled mightily at Wisconsin (7 rushes for 6 yards and a botched handoff exchange fumble with Brown), spoke reverently but said the PSU series means little to him, while he has heard little talk among teammates or UMD students about the series. He said the objective is getting a sixth and bowl-qualifying victory Saturday "and that's really what we are focused on now, and that's what makes this game so big. We definitely want to go into the bye week with that sixth win secured."
Ross and the Terps run game has bogged down more and more, with the only success of late C.J. Brown in the zone read against Iowa two weeks ago. Now, opponents have begun to take both the option and screen game away from the Terps, and Maryland has yet to counter with much success in the passing game with Brown (eight touchdowns, six picks in eight games) still off-target, and top gunslinger Caleb Rowe having knee surgery Oct. 25. Ross put the fumble on himself for not securing the football better.
But he, too, had respect for the storied program Maryland is about to face, though he is still learning about them.
"They are a good program. It seems like they have been that way, that they have had that reputation for a while," Ross said of PSU. "But again, it's a bigger deal for us to get that sixth win."
Ross said PSU's physical nature "and their energy" jumps out most about their Big Ten-leading defense, which is allowing opponents just 2.4 yards per carry and 17.4 points per game. He said they swarm to the ball and do a good job of shrinking the field "so we really got to execute."
On offense, Brown said it starts with PSU’s front seven and the pressure it brings. He said the Terps have to communicate their reads and execute better than at Wisconsin. And that he needs to throw more catchable balls and give his receivers “a chance. Not trying to make that perfect throw but just putting it up there and at least giving them a chance to go up and get it. In man-to-man coverage, if they don't beat them, I can't always try to make that perfect throw and try to lead them. But at least just put it up there and give them a chance. We got a lot of great receivers and people that can go up and make a play."
Brown said it also must start by getting the run game started, and regaining confidence there to open up the passing game again. He described the recent issues as "the whole rollercoaster of the peaks and valleys" offensively. Maryland’s top two running backs, Ross and Wes Brown, have just 257 yards each after eight games, though Brown has been used sparingly and missed a game. Meanwhile, C.J. Brown was just 13-of-29 for 129 yards passing at Wisconsin in his roughest outing of the season.
"Just handling the pressure, and again not hurting ourselves," C.J. Brown said. "I know this sounds old, but it's kinda been our Achilles heel. There's not a lot of teams that have hurt on us offense, it's us doing the wrong thing be it penalties, turnovers, and just not executing."
Brown said he had his bruised back checked out again this week and is normal, while he continues to get treatment.
Terps senior nose tackle Darius Kilgo also caught some of the PSU-OSU game Oct. 25 after returning from Wisconsin, but admitted he knows little about the Maryland-PSU series beyond Edsall mentioning the lopsided record at the beginning of the week. Kilgo overlapped with Franklin for a year at College Park. Kilgo knows it will be another hostile environment Maryland must get off to a better start at.
"It's really a great atmosphere. Definitely to be able to go in there Saturday and knowing that we are going to play in that atmosphere, well it’s going to be exciting," Kilgo said. "But we got to communicate at our best knowing there is going to be one-hundred-thousand plus [fans]."
Kilgo said it starts with Maryland generating pressure on PSU quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who has been sacked 25 times already and has thrown six touchdowns against nine picks. Beyond that, playing with better discipline and gap integrity, which has been on the wane of late as Maryland has been pounded on the ground, yielding 212.4 yards per game.
“But if he has time he can make a lot of throws. So we have to make him uncomfortable," Kilgo said of PSU’s sophomore signal-caller Hackenberg.
Kilgo said of the series, “it's just another game because I am new to this whole history of the game."
But he said the program still resonates, regardless.
"It's a very traditional school," Kilgo said. "I have grown up watching Penn State at times and it just has a lot of tradition in the program. So it is going to be harder to play against them knowing the tradition they have. And then learning on top of the history that we had here against Penn State... so just giving us the opportunity to start a new rivalry, and start it the right way, that's one thing that is very important."
Meanwhile, Terps sophomore offensive tackle Michael Dunn was never recruited by Penn State, so it was never really a school on his mind, or one that he followed coming out of Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School. He said the players have gotten somewhat excited this week about starting back up a rivalry, though.
"And I have a lot of respect for the Penn State program, and they've got a lot of history there," Dunn said. "It will be a great atmosphere and I am excited to play them. So you kinda feel an extra bit, like one of those you want to get."
Dunn said the track record isn't good so it makes it doubly motivating "for a new time, a new era, and we are hoping to change some things."
He also caught the PSU-OSU game Oct. 25, and was impressed with the battle PSU gave OSU with their high pressure scheme, which he said starts up front. As well as PSU’s tackling-machine senior linebacker, who had 19 stops against OSU last week.
"[Mike] Hull, you know that guy is all over the place, always running to the ball,” Dunn said of the Nittany Lion who also had 2.5 tackles for a loss and a pick in the contest. “He's just a football player. And the guys that Penn State has are football players, and so that's who we are working to go against."
Kilgo said Edsall reminded the players of that 1-35-1 all-time mark but left it mostly at that. Edsall also spoke fondly of Hackenberg’s father, who he knows, and everyone said the right things as the week began. Edsall said it can only become a rivalry if Maryland wins more games in the series.
Said C.J. Brown in closing, of the game and series to come starting noon Saturday.
"It's definitely special. I think a lot of alumni are looking at it bigger, it has more meaning to them," Brown said. "To us, we haven't played them in forever. So I mean being here as a student-athlete, it's another game. Obviously it's heightened because of who the head coach is and things like that. But we are just going out there to a great place to play college football, great venue against a great team, and we are just going to go out there and do our best to try and bring home the 'W.'"
Added Ross about the emerging new series, which this group will have to continue to grasp:
"Not really," he said of any strong connection yet. "It's a group of guys here that have never played them before. The record against Penn State, that's in the past. So we really don't feel much connection and it's really more close proximity to each other as far as distance. But that's pretty much it."
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