Maryland has one last chance for bowl eligibility, and that comes Saturday on the road against Penn State. The Nittany Lions beat the Terps 66-3 last season, but one year later, both teams are very different.
Obviously, the loss of Saquon Barkley was huge for Penn State, but how much has it really hurt the Nittany Lions this season?
Saquon Barkley is a generational talent and a first-class human being, but I honestly think that the losses of former offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, along with Mike Gesicki and DaeSean Hamilton, have hurt Penn State even more. Trace McSorley playing with an injured right-knee for half the season hasn’t exactly helped, but the Nittany Lions have struggled to find an offensive identity under new offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne, and they especially miss Gesicki and Hamilton on third down. Miles Sanders, a former five-star recruit out of high school, obviously isn’t as good as his predecessor because just about nobody is, but he’s done a quality job filling Barkley’s shoes, with 1,095 yards and nine touchdowns on the year.
Those back-to-back tough losses to Ohio State and Michigan State really defined Penn State’s season. What were the key issues in the Nittany Lions losing those two fourth-quarter leads?
Rahne made a series of baffling decisions in the fourth quarter of each contest. His play call on fourth-and-5 with the game on the line against Ohio State still doesn’t make much sense to me a couple months later, and he certainly could’ve executed the four-minute offense more proficiently against Michigan State.
Still, I’m not sure if either game was lost in the fourth quarter. Against the Spartans, Penn State came out flat after the bye, sleep-walked throughout the entirety of the contest and seemingly had no interest in passing downfield against the then-122nd Michigan State passing defense. The Nittany Lions probably haven’t played a better game all year since falling to the Buckeyes, but they failed to capitalize on a dominant first half and should’ve gone into the break with way more than just 13 points.
We know Trace McSorley is the face of this team, but who are Penn State’s other weapons to watch out for?
His stats aren’t anything crazy, but KJ Hamler is probably as dynamic a receiver as anyone in the Big Ten. He’s a home-run threat on any play out of the slot and as a returner. Another guy to look out for is Pat Freiermuth. Penn State fans are well aware of the tight end’s exceptional freshman campaign, but I’m not sure how much noise he’s making throughout the conference and nationwide. During a season in which the Nittany Lions’ receiving corps have struggled with drops and injuries, Freiermuth has developed into probably McSorley’s most reliable option; he has 22 catches for 303 yards and six touchdowns despite not starting until week 5.
Penn State was out of the playoff chase early, and the dagger was the 42-7 loss to Michigan. With McSorley gone after this season, does the team’s future still include a chase for the College Football Playoff every year?
I think so. James Franklin is recruiting as well as anyone in the country, and this defense will probably be one of the best in the nation next year. There were legitimate concerns about that unit coming into this season, but it’s only gotten better and better throughout the season and the Nittany Lions return just about everyone on that side of the ball next year.
The schedule should be difficult in the always-challenging Big Ten East, and there are concerns about whether wide receivers coach David Corley and special teams coordinator Phil Galiano are the right men for their respective positions, but I don’t think this team is that far away from a College Football Playoff berth.
Finish this sentence: Penn State wins if…
…Its defense keeps up its strong run of play and the offense converts on third down closer to 50 percent than 30 percent.
Maryland wins if…
…Anthony McFarland runs wild for the third straight week and Matt Canada catches the Nittany Lions off-guard with some trickery.