The Maryland football team has a chance to snap a three-game losing streak this Saturday as it takes on Penn State at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. But to do so, the team will need its defense to step up.
The Terps have allowed a combined 77 points in their last two games, and S&P+ predicts Penn State to score 33.1 points Saturday. With the team's offense stalling lately, the defense needs to shut down the Nittany Lions offense to give the Terrapins a shot at victory.
Penn State's offense relies on two uber-talented players in junior quarterback Christian Hackenberg and freshman running back Saquon Barkley. Hackenberg is one of the most talented quarterbacks in the country, while Barkley has burst onto the scene this year for the Nittany Lions and is averaging a robust 8.3 yards per carry.
Hackenberg was one of the top quarterback prospects coming into the season, but his draft stock has undoubtedly taken a hit so far in 2015. He's sporting a 53.1 percent completion percentage coming into Saturday's matchup and has only completed 60 percent of his passes once, in a win over San Diego State. That's not quite what NFL scouts are looking for.
The Nittany Lions' passing attack is ranked 113th in the country in S&P+. That's even lower than Maryland, which stands at 92nd.
As Alex Kirshner noted on Monday, Penn State's abysmal offensive line play has made things hard for Hackenberg and Barkley.
However, while the offensive line certainly plays a part in Hackenberg's disappointing season, the quarterback can't shift all the blame for his performance to his blockers. According to Pro Football Focus, he often waits a long time to release the ball on passing plays, which combined with poor pass protection could make for a big day for Maryland's pass-rushers.
"We've been stressing that we have to get to the quarterback," Maryland linebacker Avery Thompson said. "If we can stop him and stop the run, then we have the game in the bag."
Defensive ends Yannick Ngakoue and Jesse Aniebonam could make things extremely difficult for Hackenberg, and it's important they get to him early for the Terps to have a chance against a team S&P+ gives them only a 20 percent probability of beating.
"It's very important that we pressure him, because he got hurt the last game and couldn't really move around," linebacker Jermaine Carter said. "If we give him time to sit back there and read his progressions, he'll make all the throws. We have to hit him and get him off his feet as much as we can."
This will be the Terps' second straight match-up against a top-tier running back after "holding" Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliot to "only" 109 yards in the team's last game. Ignoring his one-yard, one-carry performance in the team's season opener, Penn State's Barkley has gone over the century mark in three of his four games (he missed two due to injury, but returned last week). His one game with under 100 rushing yards came against San Diego State, where he had 62 yards on eight carries for a 7.8 yards-per-carry average, and also caught a 22-yard touchdown.
"He's got good vision, good burst, he's strong, he can make good cuts in the whole," defensive coordinator Keith Dudzinski said.
Dudzinski also pointed out that in addition to Barkley's 194-yard effort last week, he broke off a big run that ended up getting called back due to holding, so he could have had an even bigger day against the Buckeyes.
"We obviously faced Elliott last week, and I feel like [Barkley] might be just as good," Carter said. "He ran for 200 yards, so we got to make sure we fit the gaps the right way, and when the play is there, we can't miss it."
Penn State ranks eighth nationally in offensive IsoPPP, a stat that measures explosiveness. Barkley has three runs of over 50 yards this season, and has only received major carries in four games, so he's a threat to break any play wide open if his offensive line can give him a hole. Penn State's offense doesn't attempt too many deep passes, so the rushing attack is where the Terps have to most be concerned about preventing the big play.
"It's just been a couple plays where we miss, and it translates to scoring. It ruins the whole game," Thompson said. "We need to make sure we have everything down pat and do everything we need to do, and we'll be good."