This column will probably include references that run the gamut from happy to funny to musical to Arthur Conan Doyle. Why? Because I get to combine Happy Valley with a James Franklin revenge game! Loyal readers will get to enjoy another revenge preview when the Terps play against Rutgers offensive coordinator and former Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen in the season finale.
We Are...Struggling Quarterbacks!
I do actually love the "We Are...Penn State!" chants but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to poke a little fun at it while talking about both teams' signal callers. Let's take a look at each. First, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, the former #1 quarterback recruit in the nation.
Hackenberg is only a sophomore and while he threw 20 touchdowns against just 10 picks last year, he has seriously regressed this year. He has only six touchdowns this year and has thrown nine interceptions. The phrase "sophomore slump" seems to be quite appropriate when describing Hackenberg's play this season. His completion percentage is just a smidge below 60% but his yards per attempt numbers are down by almost an entire yard from last year. His QB ratings have plummeted and he has struggled mightily in conference games this year.
Hackenberg is an incredibly talented quarterback but he just isn't the quarterback that we saw last year during his freshman campaign. While it is fair to argue that Hackenberg's poor numbers this season are caused by poor offensive line play, the numbers do not lie and Hackenberg has not made great decisions with the football this year.
Now let's take a look at Maryland's quarterback, C.J. Brown.
When you are asked the question, "What can Brown do for you or for Maryland's offense?", the answer is more or less the same. That answer is "Not much". Brown does have eight touchdown passes against six interceptions this year but is also completing only 55% of his passes. His decision making has been poor. He has benched various times during the year because of either injury or poor performance. His status for the game on Saturday is probable.
Brown was 13/29 against Wisconsin for 129 yards (most of which came on his 21 yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs with under a minute remaining in the game and Maryland down 52-0). Brown's quarterback rating for the game was 8.9. 8.9!! Statistically, Brown plays better on the road this year but he has played terribly in the month of October. If you think November will make a difference in C.J.'s play when he goes to play in front of 100,000 plus in Beaver Stadium, you are kidding yourself.
These quarterbacks have both been mediocre this season. We have a tie!
Happy Feet (Maryland Offense)
Not just any columnist could work in a Cab Calloway song and adorable animated movie reference at the same time! The only singing that the Terps did last week was the blues because Maryland scored only seven points against Wisconsin and it came in the last minute of a game where Maryland was already down 52-0. In the business we call that, "too little, too late". Maryland had an opportunity to take the lead on their first series of the game in Camp Randall but something or someone went all 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' on Randy Edsall and offensive coordinator Mike Locksley that compelled them to go for it on fourth and freaking 12 instead of kicking a 52 yard field goal with the best field goal kicker in America.
As I mentioned before, when Brown is that inaccurate, it is hard to do anything offensively and Wisconsin has the Big Ten's best pass defense. The Terps were limited and they got into a big hole in a big hurry. Stefon Diggs is a game changer for Maryland on offense and they won't win the game if he touches the ball less than eight times. Diggs has 46 catches for 601 yards and five touchdowns. That leads the team in all three categories. Expect to see a lot of bubble screens and a lot of short passes designed to get Diggs the ball in space.
If you like statistics and minutia like I do then you may find this interesting. Maryland has played four home games and four road games so far this season. In their four home games Maryland has run for 726 yards (that's an average of 181.5 yards per game) and scored 11 rushing touchdowns. Those are great numbers. But look at how they do on the road. In their four road games Maryland has run for only 374 yards (that's an average of 93.5 yards per game) and scored just two rushing touchdowns. They are headed into a very tough road environment. It's not as tough as Camp Randall but it sure as hell isn't the Carrier Dome.
Rache (Penn State Offense)
I promised you an Arthur Conan Doyle reference and I delivered! Bonus points (and a shout-out in my next column) if you leave a comment in the comments section telling me what Sherlock Holmes novel this reference comes from! Honesty policy is in place here folks. Don't look it up on the internet. Either you know it or you don't.
Rache is German for revenge and I couldn't talk about Penn State's offense without mentioning the fact that James Franklin used to be Maryland's offensive coordinator under The Fridge (puns are fun!). He was Maryland's coach-in-waiting and he got straight up screwed over. That job should have been his when Friedgen's contract was bought out. Franklin doesn't coordinate the offense for the Nittany Lions (John Donovan does) but if he has the opportunity to run up the score on the Terps, you better believe we are going to see a Steve Spurrier-UGA situation circa 1995.
Penn State's offensive line is not good. I hesitate to say that they are bad because they really are so much worse than that. The Nittany Lions are 123rd in the country in rushing yards per game at 82.1. They average 2.5 yards per carry on the ground. The Penn State ground game is so bad that they only ran for 16 yards against Ohio State. On 31 rushing attempts. I will go ahead and write it again so that it sinks in. They gained 16 yards on 31 attempts. For those that are not mathematically inclined, I will do the math for you. That amounts to 0.5 yards per attempt. 0.5!! Yes you read that correctly.
A bad offensive line means a weak running game but also leads to bad pass protection. This is a very inexperienced offensive line for Penn State. Penn State's offense has struggled in conference play. Here are some numbers. They scored 13 in a road win at Rutgers, 6 in a home loss to Northwestern, 13 in a road loss at Michigan, and 17 in regulation (24 overall) in a double overtime loss at home to Ohio State. Those are really bad numbers and while Maryland may not have an Ohio State-caliber defense, they are definitely not pushovers.
The statistics are clear that Maryland has the advantage on offense. Penn State has the nation's 103rd best scoring offense at 21.6 points per game. Maryland averages 10 points more per game at 31.6 points per game and that is after they only put up seven against Wisconsin.
Happy Days (Penn State Defense)
If you thought that I couldn't throw it back again, you were mistaken! I went all the way back to 1974 for this one which was directed by the great Garry Marshall and starred The Fonz (Henry Winkler), Erin Moran, and Tom Bosley. Robin Williams even appeared as an alien on the show (Mork, which led to his own spin-off show called Mork and Mindy).
The defense seems to be the only thing that has been going right for Penn State this year. Penn State has a top-10 scoring defense, allowing a mere 17.4 points per game. They held Ohio State to 17 points in regulation, Michigan to 18 and Rutgers to 10. They are very solid defensively. They are very good along the defensive line and will get a lot of pressure on C.J. Brown. Since they work out of a 4-3 defense, the blitzes probably won't be coming from the linebackers but primarily from the corners and safeties. Maryland gained only 46 rushing yards on 28 carries against Wisconsin (that's a 1.6 yards per carry average) and running backs like Wes Brown and Brandon Ross are unlikely to find success against this fantastic Penn State front seven.
No Offense to you, don't waste your time (Maryland Defense)
Let's welcome Pharrell's 'Happy' to the column!
Maryland's defense struggles against the run. Thankfully, Maryland isn't facing a great running team like Wisconsin or Ohio State. Penn State's running backs like Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch shouldn't present too much of a problem for Maryland's defense. DaeSean Hamilton is one of the best receivers in the Big Ten and while he has 57 catches and 686 yards receiving yards, he only has one touchdown this season. Will Likely and the Maryland secondary should keep an eye on Geno Lewis who averages almost 16 yards a catch on the season.
Andre Monroe and the Maryland front seven are going to want to get after Hackenberg to try and disrupt his rhythm. Hacknberg has been sacked 25 times so far this year and 20 of those sacks have come in Big Ten games. Maryland may not have the best front seven in the Big Ten but they can still get pressure and I think they will have a very good game against Penn State's inexperienced offensive line.
For the offenses, Maryland was clearly the better team statistically. Defensively the statistics clearly point to Penn State having the edge.
Advantage: Penn State
Tap, tap, tap it in (Special Teams)
A play on the tap dancing of Happy Feet and a line from Happy Gilmore! I also realize that these are somewhat strange homages to two actors that I dearly love that are no longer with us and they are Robin Williams and Richard Kiel (who played Jaws in the Bond movies and also had a small role as Mr. Larson in Happy Gilmore).
Sam Ficken has been great for the Nittany Lions as a field goal kicker. He is 13/15 on the season and his two misses have come in the 30-39 yard range. He has yet to attempt a field goal over 50 yards but he did have the game winning kick in the season opener against Central Florida to give James Franklin his first ever win at Penn State.
However, he still isn't in Brad Craddock's league. Craddock is a perfect 12/12 on the year and booted a 57 yarder against Ohio State. He is one of the best kickers in the country and he will be in the mix for the Lou Groza Award at the end of the season.
Maryland has two dangerous return men in Stefon Diggs and Will Likely who are a threat to take it to the house any time they touch the ball.
Nate Renfro has been very active lately for Maryland. He had nine punts for 380 yards against Wisconsin and had nine punts for 340 yards against Iowa. That is 720 punting yards in his last two games. If Penn State's defense is as good as advertised than Renfro will be busy again on Saturday. Renfro has been somewhat inconsistent as a punter this season and his punting could be key in what might turn into a defensive struggle this weekend.
Statistically, Maryland has one of the nation's best special teams units and with their solid return game and Brad Craddock at kicker, the Terps have the edge.
Last Saturday Penn State had a heart-breaking loss to Ohio State at home in double overtime in a white-out game under the lights on national television. That could lead to a complete let-down game this week for Penn State or they can rally back and try to take it out on Maryland. That's what I see happening.
Maryland is too good on offense to shut out and Penn State won't be able to bully Maryland around on offense like Ohio State and Wisconsin did. I expect this to be a low-scoring affair. Maryland doesn't play well in front of massive, hostile road crowds. They didn't play well offensively in Madison and I don't think they will play well offensively in State College. Throw in a little revenge factor with James Franklin and this game should be close and entertaining to watch.
Hackenberg isn't going to light it up and Maryland's defense will cause some headaches for the Penn State offense but at the end of the day, I think Penn State's defense and home crowd will simply be too much for C.J. Brown and Maryland's offense to overcome.