COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maryland-Penn State means many things to many people. But for Terps senior defensive tackle Azubuike Ukandu, it means the guy across the line from him Oct. 8 at Beaver Stadium: former Gilman offensive guard and now Penn State starting senior center Brian Gaia.
"He's a strong, tough, physical player," Ukandu said on Tuesday as the Terps began PSU week prep with the media. "I know he will be ready."
While Ukandu attended Towson High School before walking on the Terps team and earning a scholarship last fall, his younger brother, Chibuzo, now a sophomore offensive lineman at Navy, played with Gaia (6-3, 295) at nearby Gilman.
So the trio would often work out, train, and even attended a Nike Camp at Penn State together years ago.
"When you know a guy across from you the competition really heats up for bragging rights, you know,” Ukandu said. “He is a tough run-blocker going back to the days when Gilman ran the ball all the time."
Their paths have certainly led different ways, though Gaia, a former three-star guard, yearned for a Maryland offer late in the process, which he never got from Randy Edsall's staff. But come Saturday at noon they will be going up against each other yet again. The two tangled last year in Baltimore when Maryland fell, 31-30, to the Nittany Lions, during a stage in the season interim Coach Mike Locksley began playing Ukandu more and more among the regular front-line rotation.
This year there aren't as many "crossover" kids, Maryland players from Pennsylvania (see P.J. Gallo last year, who had family members attend PSU), nor Terps that chose Maryland over PSU in the recruiting wars that could interview this week (Tino Ellis, Terrance Davis, etc), as freshmen aren't available to the media.
But Ukandu has some fond memories, and he will be at a vital spot as far as sizing up this week's game, what with the PSU offensive line still young and patchwork and finding its way, and the Terps defensive front seven coming off its best performance of the season in limiting Purdue to 10 yards rushing. Penn State starts two freshmen on its offensive line, and is averaging just 108.2 yards per game on the ground. Maryland is holding the opposition to 119 yards per game rushing through its undefeated 4-0 start.
The Nittany Lions are hoping to get star running back Saquon Barkley off (just one 100 yard game this season), as he has been spotty out of the gates behind that line, while versatile sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley is a contain issue as a pass/run threat who helped will PSU to overtime victory last week over Minnesota in what many in Happy Valley are calling a "signature' win for Coach James Franklin.
There was no trash-talking (at least from the Maryland side) this week, or barbs being tossed over the neighboring state lines, just football talk from one of Maryland's best grinders on the defensive side, Ukandu, who many still marvel how the 6-foot, 307-pounder is even playing B1G Ten football. Ukandu has 8 tackles, one TFL and one sack so far for the Terps, who rank 10th in the nation in scoring defense (14.5),.
There's no B1G Ten water bottles or signs or hats yet this week around the Gossett Football Team House. There seems to be no need for extra motivation, Ukandu says.
"Pretty much the same thing, the energy is always high around here with the coaches keeping the energy flowing. It’s the same coaches as last week,” he said. “It’s just another huge B1G Ten game for us. We just have to play our game, play good defense, limit turnovers, and execute the game plan the coaches present to us. We have been on the road before, but this will probably be the largest crowd we have experienced. But at the end of the day you are just playing football and you have to execute.”
Ukuandu sees Barkley as a real weapon, though the Terps bottled him up last year in Baltimore. And McSorley a true dual-threat with the arm and feet to hurt you if you don’t keep him under wraps, as Minnesota failed to do late in the game last week to set up the extra session when he broke loose for a long gainer.
Ukandu said he has not heard of any back-and-forth yet, and its all business anyhow for the Terps. Nor the hype of any rivalry or series yet, as it's really just getting started, he said.
"I don't pay that much attention to that as we're kind of new to the B1G Ten, this is my third time facing Penn State, so it's not like a rivalry like Ohio State and Michigan," he said. "So I just pay attention to the game."
He said there are the usual recruit battles between the schools, "but that's really only for the coaches to decide. But for sure, I grew up a Maryland fan but I knew they had a great program. It was 'Linebacker U' with guys like LaVarr Arrington and those guys. I knew they had great defenses growing up."
This week, Ukandu said, it's all about contain again, as the Terps did so well against Purdue in the 50-7 rout last week at home.
"Containing the quarterback once again, so we really honed in on that at practice, and keeping and maintaining our rush lanes and winning our one on one battles to get to the quarterback. That was good last week, but we're not satisfied. We got to keep getting better each and every day at practice to keep rolling along.
Ukandu agreed it would be a "stepping-stone" win if the Terps can pull it off, which would represent their first 5-0 start since the magical 2001 Orange Bowl run under first-year Coach Ralph Friedgen..
"Everybody's spirits are really high, the level of energy that surrounds the program is really different now. We do everything with such high intensity, even walk-thrus now. That's the biggest attribute to our success right now probably. The coaches just told us trust in the process they have for us, and give us all our effort and focus, and then positive results would come from it. This week could be the next step if we go out and execute what they tell us."
Ukandu is another Terps success story under the new staff, one starting to factor more each week in the trenches. This week's game will be just the same starting up front, especially if the weather gets choppy, which it may, and the run game dominates. Last week the Terps dominated both lines of scrimmage with the Boilermakers en route to their lopsided win in their B1G Ten opener. Now the stakes get even higher with their border foe to the north, which represents so much more to the program on and off the field, especially after the last two contests since the series revived.
For Ukandu, it's just the next game on the schedule, but one with a bit more motivation given Gaia is across the line.
"I just always knew I had to work for whatever I got regardless of who the coaches were, coming from where I was coming from," he said of his own journey from walk-on to regular in the Terps rotation.