Welcome to the FOS Game Week Blitz for Penn State's matchup against Maryland.
The idea behind The Blitz? Former Playbook scribes (and current FOS staffers) Mark Harrington and Nirav Dalal provide a fans' eye breakdown of the upcoming game. They discuss and debate pertinent issues, matchups and injuries, and — of course — provide their predictions.
Like a pair of (undersized and very slow) outside linebackers, they pin back their ears and get after it. Sometimes they come through with big hits, other times they miss. But they always enjoy themselves.
MH: I don’t think many rational fans thought Penn State was realistically going to go on the road and knock off No. 1 OSU. However, what PSU showed was a defense that had streaks of brilliance and an offense that continues to look lost. The return of Saquon Barkley was huge, but the offensive staff failed to use that advantage to boost up the passing attack. Now PSU heads back on the road to a much more welcoming environment against Maryland.
ND: The Nittany Lions are licking the wounds suffered at the hands of Ohio State and J.T. Barrett. PSU had some bright spots in the game — the return of Barkley and the play of DE Carl Nassib. But, the dark spots — punting, blocking, tackling in space and offensive adjustments — cast a long shadow that could not be overcome. The Lions face a Maryland team that is coming off of an open date but has been stinking up its schedule all season, which resulted in Randy Edsall being fired. Maryland wants to prove that last year’s dramatic win was not a fluke and Penn State wants revenge.
Who: Penn State vs. Maryland
When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore
Series: Penn State leads 35-2-1
Line: Penn State -6.5 as of Wednesday evening.
MH: Let’s take a closer look at where the Nittany Lions stand heading into their road clash with Maryland.
WELCOME BACK: Barkley returned and returned big for Penn State vs. the Buckeyes. The freshman phenom carried the ball 26 times for 194 yards and really gave a spark to the offense. I expect he’ll have another big game against the Terps and should give them fits.
BACK BREAKER: The issue with Barkley is that the offensive staff used him as an excuse to avoid imaginative play-calling , basically tossing the entire game on his shoulder. With a back who was grinding up yardage, the offense barely ran any play-action and didn’t roll out QB Christian Hackenberg with any semblance of consistency. It’s amazing that they continue to think a one-dimensional, up-the-gut scheme is all they need.
FRONT MEN: Although clearly disappointed with the outcome, Penn State’s defensive front continues to step up and is finding its rhythm. Nassib — who leads the nation in sacks TFLs and forced fumbles — has a no-quit attitude along with Antony Zettel, Austin Johnson and Garrett Sickels. This challenge PSU will have is facing another mobile quarterback in Perry Hills. This game is once again going to take discipline from the front seven to stick with their assignments on the read option.
NOT SO SPECIAL: Penn State continues to have major issues on special teams, particularly when it comes to punting the ball. This was a huge problem in the battle for field position against Ohio State. The question is whether the coaches can get it squared away in the middle of the season. If they can even get it marginally improved, it should play a major role against the Terrapins.
SAIL AWAY: I am certainly not trying to pick on Hackenberg, but it’s difficult to make the case that he’s improving as the season progresses. Overall, he generally continues to lack awareness on passing downs and doesn’t consistently run through his progression. While the offensive coaches hold some responsibility in this, they aren’t causing him to sail balls over his receivers’ heads, even on short, backfield routes. The question remains as to how healthy he is. The staff (and I sound like a broken record here) has to start putting in routes that result in high-percentage passes and Hackenberg also has to deliver on these opportunities with some semblance of consistency.
ND: In this section we preview the Terrapins.
LOCKED UP: Little did Edsall know that his recruiting slogan of “Movement” would be a reference to his pending departure out of Maryland. He was dismissed Oct. 11 and Mike Locksley, the offensive coordinator, has assumed the interim head coach position. Locksley previously serving as the top man for New Mexico. This entire coaching staff is basically interviewing for a new jobs (somewhere), so look for them to take chances with high-risk, high-reward play calls to turn heads.
RUNNING HILLS: After struggling to score points, the Terps turned Hills to run the offense. In his three games, he has played better than Caleb Rowe. Though Perry is not a fabulous passer, he is able to make some throws. But he is a very good runner and is able to run the read option quite well. This created some real issues for the Buckeyes when the team played two week ago. After struggling against Barrett, it will be interesting to see what defensive coordinator Bob Shoop does to limit the impact of Hills.
BACK OUT: RB Brandon Ross is a guy who should really benefit from a QB who can tuck the ball and run, because it should mean less defenders focused in on him when gets the ball. However, Ross’ numbers have not been very impressive since Hills got the reins to the offense. Ross is a good running back who really should be more of a focal point of this offense. We’ll see if he gets more looks with the coaching changes that have taken place.
D-SASTER: The Maryland defense is one of the worst in the nation. The Terps are giving up 457.7 yards per game and are near the bottom of the Big Ten in just about every statistical category — rushing, passing, turnover margin, scoring and passing efficiency. When three of your four leading tacklers play in the secondary, you know you have a problem. If Penn State’s offense was in a famine last week, it most certainly should be feasting this week.
RETURN POLICY: William Likely is doing a fantastic job for the Terps in the punt-return game. He has returned two punts for a touchdown this season and is averaging 22.6 yards per attempt. He is shortening the field and helping this offense stay out of bad positions. The troublesome punting for Penn State coupled with Likely’s ability to move the ball could spell danger.
KEYS TO THE GAME
MH: The offense cannot just toss the keys to Barkley and hope he can carry the load. This means that PSU should use some motion, misdirection, play-action and rollouts to move the ball with the wideouts and tight ends on intermediate routes. If State can have a balanced attack and protect the ball, it should be able to get some early momentum. But I again expect the Lions to leave points on the field.
ND: Last year, James Franklin took a ton of heat for not being able to run out the clock vs. Maryland because the running game was so abysmal. But in reality, Penn State lost the game because of the difference in special teams play. Maryland’s punter flipped the field several times with an outstanding performance. Grant Haley’s fumble on a kickoff return also really hurt the Lions. If Penn State can avoid any mental breakdowns in special teams and protect the football on offense, it should walk away from this game with an easy win.
MH: I expect we'll see an all-out performance from the defense, which is looking for some redemption after OSU. The offense has a major spark in Barkley, but the coaches can't put it all on his shoulders.
Penn State 24, Maryland 16
ND: Not enough has been made of the fact that Penn State has only turned the ball over five times this season. PSU will protect the rock, run the rock and score the rock at will against a really bad Maryland team.
Penn State 38, Maryland 10
Until next time,
Fight On State!