COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Shhhhh. Maryland plays Penn State this week and it’s not really a very big deal, any more so than any other game.
But that was the party line coming out of Maryland’s weekly football press conference Tuesday. “Our mentality, our approach is the same each week,” said coach DJ Durkin. “I think that’s how you have to be. It’s 12 one-game seasons (that) you play. You have to take them the same way.”
Durkin went on to talk about the importance of a Big Ten East contest, and said there’s a little more juice for players playing against opponents they may know from high school, but there obviously wasn’t going to be any bulletin board material for posting in State College, Pa.
“I don’t you put any more weight toward one game than another,” said Durkin. “They all count. They all carry weight.”
Durkin shuffled a little bit behind the podium when pressed on the topic further. “The past two years we’ve played (Penn State) they’ve all come down to the end, they’ve been close games,” he said. “Obviously, just naturally, geographically we’re close so there’s a lot of overlap in recruiting which adds to that, what goes into the game. It is what it is.”
Some Terrapins came in after Durkin spoke and were perfectly on point, too. Even Pennsylvania native Perry Hills, Maryland’s resurgent quarterback. “Another Big Ten opponent, so it’s a Big Ten Conference game for us,” he said into a phalanx of microphones, cameras and notepads.
Hills later admitted that growing up in Pittsburgh, he was much more of a Pitt fan. He also casually mentioned his biggest challenge right now (Tuesday) is trying to score extra tickets to the game for his family and friends.
Of course he is. It’s frickin’ Penn State!
“All the other stuff is great, it adds to the game,” said Durkin, finally, about lining up agains the Nittany Lions. “It’s great for fans. It’s great for media. But for us, it’s not anything different. It’s what you have to do to win the game.”
What the Terrapins (4-0 overall, 1-0 in the Big Ten) were also playing close to the vest is a strong desire to avenge last year’s “heart-wrenching” (Hills’ words) loss to Penn State in Baltimore. The Terrapins led in the fourth quarter after Hills engineered an 88-yard march, but ultimately fell in a 31-30 thriller. Afterward, all Hills and his teammates could do was shake their heads after three interceptions and three lost fumbles.
“I wish I could have back just some of the mistakes,” said Hills. “It was a really fun game. Even my roommate (current freshman) Jake Funk said he was in the stands, and the crowd was just ecstatic. But we came up one point short, and we’re going to try to not do that this year.”
“It was a touch loss,” echoed senior nose tackle Azibuike Ukandu, who had four tackles and a sack against Purdue. “Any game we lose is a tough loss, but losing a one-point game is really tough. This year is a new year, a clean slate so we’re going to try to go get a victory this Saturday.”
So Far, So Good
And heading into Saturday’s noon kickoff at venerable 106,572-seat Beaver Stadium, the Terrapins are 1-0 in four one-game seasons, and on the verge of making people take notice nationally. The Terrapins got 23 votes in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll, and 70 in the USA Today Amway Coaches poll, which I don’t pay much attention to for fear they’ll try to sell me something.
Durkin is selling winning football these days, something that hasn’t been on the shelves in College Park for some time. So don’t be harsh on him for playing down Penn State. As long time fans know, that’s a part of the program’s history that is often better left unsaid.
Until the two Big Ten meetings the last two years, Maryland’s overall record against the pesky Nittany Lions, in a rivalry that dates back to 1917, was 1-35-1. The series was discontinued in 1993, after the Terrapins lost 70-7, so current players and coaches must understand why this is a much bigger deal to fans and alumni.
A rare highlight of the brief Randy Edsall Era was two years ago when Maryland went to State College and beat Penn State 20-19, something that makes this team’s view of PSU very different in their experience, then what long-time fans conjur when thinking of those plain uniforms and helmet and black shoes.
“We’re new to the Big Ten and this is my third time playing Penn State,” said Ukandu. “It’s not like a (long-term) rivalry like Ohio State-Michigan. I really don’t pay that much attention to that. I just play the game.”
Sophomore left guard Mike Minter had similar sentiments, but was also elusive in saying anything the Lions could pounce upon. “Playing at Happy Valley is a great experience, so much fun,” he said.
Hills laughed – well it is called Happy Valley – when he added, “Honestly, we like playing in environments like that instead of one where there’s no fans at all. It kind of gets you more energized to go out there and say, ‘We’re going to prove all these people wrong’, and make them shut up. Guys are going to be really excited for it.”
Guys were so excited before the last time the Terrapins were there that a pregame scuffle broke out. Nothing might have come of it under normal circumstances, but then the Maryland captains (Sean Davis, Stephon Diggs and P.J. Gallo) all refused to shake hands with the Penn State captains just prior to kickoff, and that became a major storyline.
Like it or not, it was a great way to renew or maybe jump-start a rivalry. Last year, hands were shaken and civility restored, though historically Maryland has every right to have a chip on their shoulder pads about Penn State.
Hills, on the bench that game two years ago behind senior quarterback C.J. Brown, firmly said, ‘No,” when asked if such a thing might happen again. To their credit, these players are not easily swayed off message, and to be honest, aren’t letting that 4-0 start go to their helmets.
“It feels good to be 4-0,” said Hills. “But that doesn’t mean anything yet. We’re just concentrating on having an opportunity to go 5-0. That’s what we need to concentrate on, and not get too high on ourselves. Games we’ve won, that’s in the past now.”
Heck, the first win was five “seasons” ago to hear coach Durkin tell it.
There’s a strong sense that the coaching staff that plastered Big Ten logos everywhere to sharpen the team’s focus on the conference opener with Purdue last week, is not giving a full picture of their motivational modus operandi in the Gossett Team House this week.
But this does have the makings of a wonderful football rivalry. There’s the border that separates the states, their plain-Jane unis and helmets compared to Maryland’s wonderful incorporation of the state flag all over, and then there’s Penn State coach James Franklin, who has to delight in trying to stick it to the Terps, who once had him on deck to be head coach after Ralph Friedgen.
The recruiting stakes are high and now that Durkin has Maryland inching back into the national picture, well, ahem, it’s Franklin on more of a hot seat these days in mostly, it seems, Unhappy Valley, where all those loud fans are restless in a 3-2, 1-1 start on the heels of a 7-6, 4-4 season.
Hey, Keep it Down Over There
The noise doesn’t bother Durkin. He didn’t see the potential of playing in front of over 100,000 fans as a problem either. “The way our offense operates is we’re like that always. We’re not a huddle-up-and-verbal-snap-count…that’s just not what we do whether we’re home, away or whatever. It kind of plays in our favor because we don’t have to make adjustments that way. All the communication is from the sideline.”
Maryland is already 2-0 on the road, something that will get a lot more attention if they go to 3-0 this weekend. They’ve been dominant up front on both sides of the line for much of the season but it’s agreed they’re stepping up in weight class this week.
Even though this isn’t your father’s Penn State program, maybe not even your older brother’s, they’re still a team that believes in themselves and plays like it. Last week’s 29-26 overtime win over Minnesota was a prime example. The Nittany Lions got a field goal with two seconds remaining to tie the game, and then won in overtime despite being out-rushed by nearly 100 yards (228-136) and out-time-of-possessioned by 13 minutes.
Minnesota held tailback Saquon Barkley, now averaging 76 yards per game, to 63 yards on 20 carries, a key for Maryland this week, too. The Terrapins raison d’etre is to shut down the run and put the onus on quarterback Trace McSorley to carry the load. Trouble is he might just be capable, third in the Big Ten at 256.8 yards passing per game. He had 335 yards against the Gophers and saved the day.
“He does a real good job of scrambling, moving in the pocket,” said Durkin. “He’s really mobile and does a good job with his eyes down the field when he’s moving in the pocket – big plays, a lot of vertical routes and guys getting down the field…They have big-play capability on their offense.”
The Terrapin defense has that ability, too. They’ve had at least three sacks the last three games, and had six against Purdue. Buck end Jesse Aniebonam has been unblockable recently, registering 5.5 tackles for loss the last two games. At the other end, Roman Braglio is coming off his best game of the season with two sacks against Purdue.
Durkin said Penn State’s offensive success, in an attack ran by former Maryland offensive coordinator Franklin, is based on the threat of Barkley and what he can do as a top back. Defenses suck in, and then the Lions beat you downfield.
“They’ve got a really good running back and a dual threat quarterback that can make plays with his feet and his arm as well,” said Ukandu. “We have to play our game. Play good defense, limit turnovers, and execute the gameplan.”
Ukandu said the Terrapins’ success in sacking quarterbacks is based on hard work and the knowledge last year’s top pass rushers are gone. “Honing our craft in practice and since the departures of Yannick Ngakoue and Quenton Jefferson, we just really took it on ourselves to pick up the slack. It was more of a combined-unit effort to pile up these sacks.”
The tape from the Purdue game couldn’t have been much fun for Penn State offensive coaches to watch. The Terrapins blitzed from everywhere, every single position, according to Durkin. Oh by the way, Maryland is second in the Big Ten in quarterback sacks and the defense Durkin coached last year, Michigan, is tops.
As for Maryland’s offense, Penn State likes to vary their looks, but it hasn’t always helped, the Nittany Lions giving up 31.4 points per game and a whopping 216.6 yards on the ground.
“They do a lot of things and they’re a very good defense,” said Minter. “They move around a lot, have a lot of blitzes and a lot of defensive linemen that are very active off the ball.”
Certainly Penn State will crowd the line and try to shut down Maryland’s muscular running game and force Hills to make plays in the passing game. Hills is better equipped for that challenge than ever.
“He has great confidence in how he plays the position, and he should,” said Durkin. “I think he’s a really good quarterback. He can beat you with his feet and his arm. He’s doing a real good job of executing within our scheme and doing what we ask him to do.”
Hills said last year he had more confidence in his “legs” because that’s what he had worked on in the offseason. “Now I have worked on throwing in the offseason, as well as running, and my confidence has definitely built up.”
Terps Have a Six-Back on Tap
The Terrapins are second in the Big Ten and 18th nationally, averaging 300.0 yards per game rushing. Running back Ty Johnson was Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week after churning out 204 yards on just seven carries last week against Purdue. And that performance allowed Johnson to keep his name among the co-starters at his position heading to Penn State.
Of course, Johnson is one of six co-starters at the position on the latest depth chart along with (alphabetically) Wes Brown, Trey Edmunds, Jake Funk, Kenneth Goins, Jr., and Lorenzo Harrison.
Johnson’s breakout last weekend did induce Durkin to talk a little more about his sophomore speedster. “The biggest thing you see in Ty right away is his top-end speed. That shows up on tape. You can see that pretty quickly when you watch him. As you get to know him better, he’s a really hard worker. He doesn’t say much. He’s about his business all the time. He’s very coachable. Anything you ask him to do, he tries his hardest to do it the way you’re asking him to.”
Hills said Terrapin offensive coaches have been motivating the unit by telling them they have a chance to be the best Maryland offense ever. “They talk about how we’ve scored the most points through four games (173) in school history, and they’re confident in us every day.”