— Story by PSU Insider Brian Tripp @psuTripp
If last week’s comeback win over Minnesota was encouraging, Penn State’s dominating 38-14 win over previously unbeaten Maryland on Saturday was eye-opening. Scoring opening possession points for the first time this season, Penn State took a 7-0 lead with an impressive seven play, 84-yard drive showcasing the best features of Joe Moorhead’s new offense.
Beginning with that first drive, Penn State set the tone. The Nittany Lions were unquestionably better in the trenches, running for 372 yards and holding Maryland’s high-octane ground attack to 170 yards. Yes, Maryland played the entire second-half without injured starting quarterback Perry Hills, but Penn State’s injury-ravaged defense was superior to the Terps’ offense on this day. Linebacker Brandon Smith posted a team-high 14 tackles and fellow linebacker Koa Farmer excelled in his first career start with 5 tackles, a sack and forced fumble. The nomadic Farmer appeared to finally find a home on the Nittany Lion defense, showcasing his athleticism attacking the line of scrimmage and in a necessary coverage role with Christian Campbell and Amani Oruwariye both inactive.
However, most striking, the Penn State offense has now posted 64 points in the last six-plus quarters. After struggling mightily at Michigan and in the first half against Minnesota, the unit is finally displaying the much anticipated firepower needed to compete with upper-echelon Big Ten teams. Quarterback Trace McSorley once again utilized his speed to rush for 81 yards and a touchdown. His mobility, coupled with an effective offensive line, created space for Penn State’s star running back Saquon Barkley, who gashed the Terps for a career-best 202 yards on 31 carries. In total, Penn State amassed 524 yards of total offense, its most since 2013, and ran the ball 62 times, the most ever in a Big Ten game in program history.
While Maryland’s previously unblemished mark was probably deceiving based on the quality of competition, Penn State’s announced homecoming crowd of over 100,000 had every right to be pleased with the progress displayed Saturday. Penn State controlled the game from start to finish.
Yet, bigger challenges await. The Lions must now reshuffle their offensive line, with tackle Andrew Nelson likely out for the remainder of the season due to an apparent leg injury. But, Penn State gets a much-needed bye week to restock its defense. National title contender Ohio State visits a suddenly apt-named Happy Valley on October 22nd. Tough matchups with Indiana, Iowa and Michigan State still litter the schedule, although the home-stretch certainly appears more navigable now with those team’s recent losses. Once unthinkable, eight or nine wins certainly seem possible with seven almost guaranteed.
For Penn State to fully rewrite a gloomy narrative scripted two weeks ago, McSorley must continue to demonstrate high-level decision-making. Turnovers need to remain a thing of the past. The offensive line somehow must overcome the loss of its best player. Wide receivers should start generating some separation. And, defensively, Penn State simply needs to get healthy.
Easy, no. But, possible, yes.
Top Five Takeaways:
- Penn State had a season-high 35 minutes of time of possession in the victory over Maryland. Its previous best of 28:33 came against Temple on September 17th. By establishing a strong rushing attack with Barkley and McSorley, the Nittany Lions dictated the game’s tempo.
- The Penn State offense also converted a season-best 38.5% of third downs. It still isn’t a great ratio, but it is a step in the right direction. The Nittany Lion offense proved that it can sustain a drive and control the football. Again, this was by far Penn State’s best performance of the season.
- For the first time this season, Penn State committed more penalties than its opponent. Penn State was penalized six times for 45 yards and Maryland five times for 49 yards. This is not a criticism. I think it demonstrates how well disciplined Penn State has been all season. The team does not commit foolish or unnecessary penalties. Franklin and his staff deserve a lot of credit for this. In total, Penn State has been penalized 29 times and its opponents 49 times.
- Kicker Joey Julius has truly become a weapon. Opponents are aware of his presence on the field. Teammates and fans are energized by his performance. I have never seen a kickoff specialist have that type of impact before. Last year, Julius was a liability with poor kicks at inopportune moments.
- I can’t say this enough. Saquon Barkley is worth the price of admission. Television doesn’t do his speed and athleticism justice. He’s remarkable.