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Maryland football: Terps face struggling Penn State offense, quarterback Christian Hackenberg

Penn State's offense has been slow to get off the ground, but the unit still has plenty of talent.

Justin K. Aller

Last weekend, Maryland saw the crème de la crème of FBS running games when it visited Melvin Gordon and Wisconsin. The Terps held the Badgers to less than their seasonal rushing average but still got gashed on the ground against an elite attack, to the tune of 6.3 yards per carry and five touchdowns.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Penn State's ground game, which has been slow all year.The Nittany Lions average 2.5 yards per carry as a team and just 82 total yards per game. Both figures place them comfortably in last place in the Big Ten ahead of Maryland's visit to Beaver Stadium on Saturday.

"It obviously gives us a chance to bounce back after a tough loss," nose tackle Darius Kilgo said. "One thing we really want to focus on is just being dominant on defense and everybody doing their job and knowing our assignments. It's a good opportunity for us overall."

Given Penn State's struggles on the ground, the play of sophomore and touted professional prospect Christian Hackenberg is even more important. Hackenberg dazzled at times as a freshman but has regressed statistically this year.

Hack stats

Hackenberg is completing the same percentage of his passes he did last year, but for a full yard fewer per attempt. His 2-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio from a year ago has fallen all the way into negatives.

Still, Maryland isn't taking Hackenberg lightly. Randy Edsall, who knows Hackenberg's father, said the sophomore is the best leader and passer Maryland will face at quarterback all season.

"He's big, he's strong and he can make every throw that you want a quarterback to make," Edsall said. "He's mobile and able to move around, so when an opportunity does present itself, he can hold the ball down and run. He's a big, strong kid, so you have to tackle."

Hackenberg is regarded a pocket passer and listed at 6 feet 4 inches and 234 pounds. He is a negative-yardage career runner but has some mobility. His longest career running play is 17 yards.

Maryland defensive coordinator Brian Stewart said Hackenberg excels at reading safety coverages and handling pressure, then uses a strong arm to deliver the ball.

"He knows his offense. He knows where he wants to go with the ball, so that's pretty predetermined," Stewart said. "You can see him coming up with where he wants to go with the ball and getting his footwork correct so he can throw the ball there."

Hackenberg has been sacked four more times in seven games than he was in 12 as a freshman. Along with that, the rushing game's paltry average is 1.7 yards lower than it was per attempt in 2013, despite using the same three primary running backs this year as last – Bill Belton, Akeel Lynch and the injured Zach Zwinak.

The dots are not hard to connect, and they point to an offensive line that's taken a step backward this season.

Penn State has four new starters on that line this year – everybody except left tackle Donovan Smith. Compounding that, the offense transitioned to a new playbook when head coach James Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan (both former Maryland assistants) arrived in Happy Valley this year.

Stewart attributed whatever problems the Penn State line has had to the system transition between former coach Bill O'Brien and Franklin, who came to Penn State from Vanderbilt.

"It looks like they just brought their offense from Vanderbilt to Penn State," Stewart said when asked about the Lions' offensive line. "We saw exactly what we see now."

Kilgo called it a "good group of offensive linemen."

Perhaps so, but the results haven't come yet. The Lions have been bad or worse on the ground against every foe but lowly Massachusetts (a 5.1-yard average that day). Other than that, their per-game averages are 2, 3.4, 1.9, 2, 1.5 and a miserable 0.5 yards last week. And Hackenberg's 3.6 sacks-taken per game are the most in the Big Ten.

That isn't a recipe for success, and the running problems haven't aided Hackenberg over the course of the year. Because of the issues in the run and the pass game, Penn State's scoring offense amounts to the third-worst in the conference, at 21.6 points on just 356 yards per game. Given Hackenberg's talent, that's an odd spot.

"Christian, he's a great quarterback," Kilgo said. "He has good size for a quarterback. He can make all kinds of throws. If you let him sit back there in the pocket, he's going to make a lot of throws."

Despite Hackenberg's numbers this year, he remains one of the most talented quarterbacks Maryland will see. He has a few effective receivers to throw to, most prominently the speedy DaeSean Hamilton.

The redshirt freshman has only scored once, but he's approaching 60 catches and 700 yards. His 57 catches lead the conference, and he's third in yards per game with 97. He will challenge Maryland's linebackers and secondary.

"Hamilton has short-area quickness, does a good job catching the ball with his hands, not just body-catching it. He has great separation, so when he's close to a guy and the ball's in the air, he can separate and get to the ball," Stewart said. "You're scared for him to have the ball in space, because he's going to make some people miss."

Kilgo said limiting those in-space chances for Hamilton would be a key to stopping Penn State's passing game.

"What we've seen out of the receivers, most of the screens go to him. They expect big plays out of him when they give him the screen. They're looking for him to be an explosive guy for them," Kilgo said. "If we can slow that process down, I think we'll be pretty good on defense."