Maryland football is looking to end its season on a high note when it takes on Penn State on Saturday. To learn more about the Nittany Lions, we reached out to Bill DiFilippo of Roar Lions Roar with some questions on the team, and he provided some lovely answers. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
It feels like Saquon Barkley went from at one point being a Heisman frontrunner to just a run-of-the mill really good college running back this season. Would that be a fair way to assess his season?
I would argue that he's the best running back in the country. The issue is twofold: His offensive line has really, really struggled over the last few months (with one or two notable exceptions), and defenses have been hyper-focused on slowing him down since his game against Iowa in September. When he gets a little bit of space, he's almost always going to do something special, but the issue has been getting that space — Penn State is seventh nationally in rushing S&P+, but 23.4 percent of its rushing attempts go for zero yards or fewer.
So basically, when Barkley has room, he's doing something special. But on about a quarter of his attempts, he's not getting that room. I know this sounds like a fan being an apologist, but I promise you'll get exactly what I'm saying when you watch him play.
Trace McSorley is in his second season as a starter. Have you noticed any major changes in his play from 2016 or 2017, or is he basically the same guy as last year?
The "downside" between this year and last year has been that the big passing plays that defined Penn State's offense last year aren't as prominent, although that makes sense considering that Chris Godwin is in the NFL. But this year, McSorley has been far more willing to take the "smarter" throw — his completion percentage is 65.2 percent this year, compared to 57.9 percent last year. He's also been a better runner this season, as he has 30 more rushing yards and three more rushing touchdowns on 21 fewer attempts in 2017.
Tyler Davis is 8-for-15 on field goals this year. Has that affected the offense, knowing there's no guarantee of a made field goal?
I don't really think so; Davis was as consistent of a kicker as you'll find prior to this season, as he came into the year 30-for-32. But a mix of factors — blocked kicks, a new long snapper/holder, and the fact that he is now Penn State's kickoff specialist — has impacted his ability to kick it through the uprights. I think James Franklin is confident in his ability to make kicks, and he has never missed a PAT in his career, but I also think the Nittany Lions have never really been in a position where the options were "Tyler takes a big kick" or "We go for it because we do not trust him."
Penn State has the sixth-best rushing defense in the Big Ten based on rushing yards allowed per game. How do you feel they'll do against a Maryland team with two talented running backs?
Advanced stats generally like Penn State's rushing defense, and starting middle linebacker Jason Cabinda is as good of a linebacker as you'll ever see at sniffing out a play pre-snap, diagnosing it immediately, and attacking. The issue has been that Penn State's defensive line has seen injuries to its two starting ends, and its replacements have been young guys who (like most younger defensive ends) are better at pinning their ears back and getting to a quarterback than they are at containing the run.
Lorenzo Harrison and Ty Johnson are really, really dangerous, and while I think they probably break off a few big runs, I think the Nittany Lions key in on stopping them with the hopes that Max Bortenschlager has to beat them with his arm. (I would imagine Maryland's defense follows a similar plan to slow down Barkley and make McSorley beat them, too, because even though McSorley has been great this year, teams have been so scared of Barkley that they are willing to take their chances.)
Who is someone on Penn State's defense that stands out more than his stats would let on?
That's an interesting question, because Penn State's defense doesn't really have any guys who would be considered game-changers. I suppose Cabinda and Marcus Allen would be the two guys who are considered "stars," but neither will be a unanimous All-American or anything. But for a guy who hasn't gotten too much attention, let's go with Amani Oruwariye, a ball-hawking cornerback who can be up-and-down yet is really good at making plays when he's in a position to snatch the ball away from a receiver — his four picks lead the Nittany Lions and are tied for third in the conference.
Fill in the blank: Maryland can pull off the upset if _____.
It can protect the football and get its defense off the field without allowing touchdowns. The former is self-explanatory — the Nittany Lions are 15th nationally in takeaways, and have actually recovered more fumbles (12) than they have reeled in interceptions (10) — but the latter is a little more interesting.
When you see a high-scoring offense, you normally equate that with having the ball. But Penn State is actually 81st nationally in time of possession, and on average, its opponents have the ball more than they do. The Nittany Lions offense averages about 29:11 minutes per game. The thing is they're really good at marching down the field quickly and getting six. I think if the Terrapins can use that to their advantage by getting the ball back quickly, keeping McSorley and co. off the field and hold Penn State to three with some amount of frequency, they can make this a game.