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Maryland football vs. Penn State preview: Terps face first big test of 2016

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And they have a very real chance of winning.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

When the Maryland football team beat Penn State two years ago, it seemed like the Terps were announcing their arrival to the Big Ten. Two years later, a win at Happy Valley could mean much more.

The whole Maryland-Penn State (non)rivalry thing has been covered to death, but this game clearly matters. Not because of denied handshakes or trash talk (there hasn’t been any). With Michigan State looking extremely human, Saturday’s game could very well decide who is the third-best team in the Big Ten East.

Kevin Kugler, Matt Millen and Lisa Byington have the call for this noon kickoff on BTN.

Penn State Nittany Lions (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten)

2015 record: 7-6

Head coach: James Franklin (31-17 in 2+ seasons at Penn State)

All-time record vs. Maryland: 36-2-1. Yeah.

F/+ ranking: 47 (Maryland is 33)

5-year recruiting ranking: 26th (fifth in Big Ten)

Players to watch

Saquon Barkley, RB, sophomore, 5’11/223, No. 26. With Ezekiel Elliot gone to the NFL, Barkley is now the Big Ten’s premier back. Here’s Maryland defensive coordinator Andy Buh:

I can't say enough about Barkley. He'll be the best back that we've seen thus far. He can jump cut and spin and the acceleration off of those moves is what has given people problems. It's what makes him one of the better backs we've seen.”

Yep. He’s pretty, pretty good.

Trace McSorley, QB, sophomore, 6’0/205, No. 9. McSorely is doing a solid job filling in for Christian Hackenberg in his first season as a starter. He’s completed 58 percent of his passes at a 7.2 yards-per-attempt clip. He’s mobile, too. McSorley’s Penn State’s second-leading rusher.

Chris Godwin, WR, junior, 6’1/205, No. 12. Godwin was the team’s leading receiver a year ago, and that hasn’t changed in 2016. He has the highest target rate on the team by far and his 14.2 yards-per-attempt average is one of Penn State’s highest.

Marcus Allen, S, junior, 6’2/202, No. 2. Allen is Penn State’s leading tackler by a W I D E margin so far in 2016, and he’ll be asked to help contain Maryland’s ground game. He has 38.5 tackles on the season, while the next-highest player has 23. Tackles aren’t the end-all be-all of defense, but that’s still impressive, as are his two pass break-ups.

Brandon Smith, LB, junior, 6’0/228, No. 47. Fans might know him from the time he received what appeared to be an unjust targeting call and was tossed from the Michigan game. He’s the man in the middle for Penn State’s defense now that the team is missing every one of its starting linebackers.

Strengths

Big passing plays. The Nittany Lions are fifth in the country in passing explosiveness, according to Bill Connelly’s metrics. McSorley was only 19-for-41 against Minnesota last week, but racked up a nice 17.6 per-completion average, including an 80-yard catch-and-run to Charles Irvin. Maryland has a talented secondary, but safeties Darnell Savage Jr. and Josh Woods (making his second career start) will be tested in support of their stellar corners.

Rushing attack. Behind Barkley’s ability running the ball, Penn State is 24th in the nation in rushing S&P+. He’s tough to bring down and will be a focal point of Maryland’s defensive preparation for this game.

Weaknesses

Efficiency. They need big plays. If they don’t get long gains, the Nittany Lions could get in trouble. They rank 104th in offensive efficiency, which means they’ve had enough big plays to offset a lack of consistency. Penn State struggles with both rushing and passing success rate, stats that measure how successful a team is on every single play. If the Terps can keep the Lions in their cage, things will be extremely difficult.

Linebacker depth. Facing a successful ground attack like Maryland’s without any of your three starting linebackers is an extremely unenviable task, but it’s what’s on Penn State’s plate. The Nittany Lions’ defensive rushing stats are about average, but that might not be enough against a Maryland team that ran for 400 yards against Purdue.

Predictions

S&P+: Penn State wins, 32.1-29.1. Terps have 43 percent chance of winning.

Ryan’s prediction, which will surely be wrong: Maryland wins, 33-27.