Late in the third quarter, Maryland had just scored a touchdown and converted a two-point conversation to tie the game at 14-14.
With Penn State deep in its own territory with possession, quarterback Sean Clifford sat back on 2nd-and-17 to deliver a pass to his go-to weapon, wide receiver Jahan Dotson who torched the Terps all day. Dotson took the catch-and-run 86 yards to the house, regaining Penn State’s lead, one it wouldn't surrender the rest of the night.
Maryland was a play and a step behind all day as they fell to No. 22 Penn State, 31-14, in College Park on Saturday. Maryland’s offense took a while to find its rhythm and the defense stopped the run but failed to contain Dotson, who went off for 242 yards and three touchdowns. A plethora of costly mistakes found the Terps playing from behind, failing to overcome avoidable errors.
“It felt like we had plenty of opportunities to win the game today,” head coach Mike Locksley said. “I thought our kids competed for four quarters, we just continue to make mistakes at the most inopportune times.”
Penn State’s opening drive was a quick one, with three straight plays failing to net positive yards. The Nittany Lions punted it away and gave Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa an opportunity to get the first points on the board.
Despite the good field position, Maryland failed to take advantage of its defense’s fast start. A third-down penalty, an occasion that has become familiar to the Terps this season, halted Maryland’s drive.
Clifford struggled to find his composure early, missing throws thanks to a Maryland defense that hadn't looked the part in its last few contests.
With the defenses taking over, the game turned into a field position battle as both teams looked for the early edge.
It finally came for Penn State on the fifth drive of the game as the Nittany Lions went 75 yards in four plays, capped off with a 38-yard Clifford pass to a wide-open Dotson that put Penn State on top 7-0 midway through the first.
With the lack of an explosive presence on the outside, Maryland failed to generate any big plays. Instead, Maryland’s offensive possessions turned stale, forcing them to punt time and time again. It was just the second time this season that Maryland did not score any points in the first quarter.
Maryland looked to gain some offensive momentum in the second quarter but back-to-back dropped passes by wide receiver Marcus Fleming and tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo halted a once-promising drive.
Although its offense struggled for much of the first half, Maryland’s defense was impressive, especially against the run, after a slew of concerning performances where teams ran down the Terps throat and killed the clock. In the first half, Maryland allowed just 49 yards on the ground on 20 attempts.
They were also aggressive getting to the quarterback and either sacking Clifford or forcing him into tough, off-the-mark throws. Greg Rose had a massive second-and-one sack in the second quarter that forced the Nittany Lions' offense back eight yards. Cornerbacks Jordan Mosley and Nick Cross led the team in tackles in the first half with seven and five, respectively.
As the slugfest continued with both teams trading punts, the Terps’ offense didn't click until just before the final whistle of the first half. With a little less than three minutes on the clock, the Terps started from their own 14-yard line still looking to get points on the board.
Tagovailoa delivered darts all over the field to march his offense into the red zone. Running back Challen Faamatau punched it in from two yards out to give Maryland the score. Tagovailoa was 5-for-6 on the drive. However, kicker Joseph Petrino missed the extra point to leave Maryland trailing 6-7 at the half.
That end-of-the-half momentum failed to carry into Maryland’s opening drive of the third quarter. After two first-down pickups, Maryland was forced to punt it away.
On the ensuing possession, Penn State put together a textbook drive. Starting on its own five-yard line, the Nittany Lions went 95 yards on 13 plays that took five minutes and 43 seconds. The Terps defense could not get the third-down stop it desperately needed. Clifford once again connected with Dotson for the touchdown over the middle, this time from 21-yards out.
The Terps began driving, hoping they could answer Penn State’s score. Through the Tagovailoa-wide receiver Rakim Jarrett connection, Maryland had marched down the field and positioned itself in the red zone.
With a new set of downs to work with, Tagovailoa was operating in the shotgun. However, a muffled snap went through the hands of Tagovailoa and onto the turf, where someone in Penn State white leaped on the ball.
Maryland’s defense did what it could to make up for the missed opportunity, forcing Penn State to punt. When Tagovailoa got the ball back, he brushed off the turnover and went back to work as the drive ended in the third quarter and picked up in the fourth.
The junior quarterback delivered a shovel pass to Okonkwo on a 4th-and-three to pick up a crucial first down. Two plays later, Tagovailoa delivered a dime to receiver Corey Dyches to the left sideline of the end zone.
Trailing by two, Maryland had to go for the two-point conversation. Tagovailoa rolled out to his right and hit Okonkwo to complete the conversation and tie the game at 14 apiece.
The following drive, Clifford delivered his pass to Dotson for an 86-yard score.
“He ran slant routes for about 242 yards against man coverage,” Locksley said on how they failed to contain Dotson.
Maryland had a chance to respond in Penn State’s territory, but couldn't convert a third down, giving the ball back to Penn State with a chance to extend its lead.
While the Nittany Lions didn't get in the end zone on the following drive, they were able to knock in a field goal to give Penn State a 10-point advantage.
Maryland had one more shot to keep itself in the game. The Terps were moving down the field with an opportunity to cut the lead to three with over three minutes to go. Instead, Tagovailoa threw his lone, but costly interception in the red zone that Penn State’s defense ran all the way back for a touchdown.
“That’s a nice play by their safety,” Tagovailoa said about the interception. “That’s my fault, just trying to do to much.”
Three things to know
1. After rough performances, Maryland’s defensive line showed up. In recent games, opposing teams were taking advantage of Maryland’s poor rushing defense by continuously looking to the ground game to generate offense and eat-up time of possession. However, on Saturday, the Terps front seven held strong and limited the Nittany Lions rushing attack. For the game, Penn State carried for 95 yards on 32 carries.
“Our interior d-lineman... those guys play really hard,” Locksley said. “Those guys are playing winning football for us.”
2. Maryland got virtually no help from its running game. While Maryland’s defense limited Penn State in the ground game, the Terps couldn't get anything going from its own backfield. In the first half, Maryland attempted 14 runs for a whopping three yards. The longest run of the half was for nine yards by running back Tayon Fleet-Davis. For the game, they carried the ball 27 times for 57 yards. It’s difficult for the passing attack to find a rhythm and thrive when the ground game is non-existent.
3. Maryland could not overcome its costly mistakes. Maryland was competitive for much of the contest, despite the score. It constantly felt like Maryland was a play away from breaking through and gaining an edge in the game. However, whether it was a dropped pass, dropped interception, missed tackle or missed extra point, Maryland continuously shot itself in the foot, preventing itself from ever getting over the necessary hump to beat a quality opponent.
“All these losses suck,” Locksley said. “This one’s disappointing. We had opportunities.”