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Maryland football vs No. 12 Penn State preview: Friday night lights

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The Terps start their conference slate against a ranked team.

Anthony McFarland Maryland football vs Temple Sarah Sopher / Testudo Times

With the move to the Big Ten in 2014, Maryland football was given a chance to renew one of its most storied series. After not playing Penn State for 20 years, the teams were given a chance to meet once again, and the Terps walked away with a victory.

That win has proven to be an outlier so far, as the Terps hold just a 2-39-1 record against the Nittany Lions since the series’ inception in 1917. This highly anticipated 2019 matchup was nearly a top-25 bout, but a Maryland loss to Temple squashed all hopes of that possibility.

“In our first two games, we showed ourselves how good of a team we can be,” transfer linebacker Shaq Smith said. “We hit that adversity against Temple and it was our first time, up to that game, hitting any adversity at all. ... Now we know how to face the adversity and how we can overcome adversity.”

The Terps will be hosting a primetime matchup against the No. 12-ranked team in the nation. Kickoff is scheduled for 8 pm ET Friday, and the action can be watched on Fox Sports 1.

No. 12 Penn State Nittany Lions (3-0)

2018 record: 9-4 (6-3 Big Ten Conference)

Head coach James Franklin is a familiar sight for Terps fans, as he’s not only coached Penn State since 2014, but he was also an assistant in College Park for a number of seasons. From 2000-04, he served in a variety of roles, including wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator.

Franklin returned in 2008 as offensive coordinator and assistant head coach, serving in that role until he took the head coaching job at Vanderbilt in 2011. After three years in Nashville, was offered the job in University Park. Both of Franklin’s stints overlapped with head coach Mike Locksley, and the two are still in contact.

Players to know

Sean Clifford, redshirt sophomore quarterback, 6’2, 216 lbs, No. 14. Clifford has big shoes to fill, as he’s taking over for Penn State legend Trace McSorley, who is now on the Baltimore Ravens. It’s been just three games thus far, but Clifford has impressed as a starter, completing 44-of-75 passes for 781 yards and six touchdowns. He’s also been impressive as a runner, taking 19 carries for 191 yards, good for over six yards per carry.

“I think it all starts with the quarterback [Sean] Clifford,” Locksley said. “He’s a guy that can beat you with his arm and his legs, he’s made plays where I’ve seen him run away from defense as a ball carrier, but also has thrown the ball really well.”

KJ Hamler, redshirt sophomore wide receiver, 5’9, 176 lbs, No. 1. Hamler doesn’t have the size of a dominating receiver, but that hasn’t stopped him from lighting up opposing defenses. In 2018, he hauled in 42 passes for 754 yards and five touchdowns. So far in his redshirt sophomore season, Hamler has already caught 10 passes for 245 yards and a pair of scores. While he is a threat in the air, Hamler is also a dynamic return man, as he averaged 26.2 yards per kick return last season.

Yetur Gross-Matos, junior defensive end, 6’5, 264 lbs, No. 99. A defense is often only as good as its ability to rush the passer, and over the last two seasons, Gross-Matos has led the way in that regard for the Nittany Lions. As a sophomore, he racked up eight sacks, which placed him tied for seventh in the Big Ten. In 2019, he’s already picked up 3.5 sacks, placing him tied for eighth in FBS in sacks per game, and he’s regarded as a top draft pick.

Strength

Scoring defense. The level of competition hasn’t been there through three weeks — Penn State has faced Idaho, Buffalo and Pittsburgh. But if one thing is certain, it’s that the Nittany Lions have kept opponents off of the scoreboard. So far, they’ve conceded just 10 points per game, which ranks tied for fourth in the nation. Penn State continually kept offenses out of the endzone, and it also held them to 70.7 rushing yards per game, fourth-best in the Big Ten.

"I know [Penn State's defense] is very experienced," Maryland quarterback Josh Jackson said Monday. "And I think they’re gonna execute, they’re going to push you and they’re gonna play some defense."

Weakness

Third-down efficiency. As good as Penn State’s offense has been — it’s averaging 47 points per game, fourth-best in the conference — the Nittany Lions attack has struggled on third down. It’s converted just seven of its 30 third-down situations, which comes out to a 23.3 percent success rate. That mark ranks last in the Big Ten and 127th out of 130 FBS teams.

Three things to watch

1. Can Maryland buck the recent trend? In case you missed it, Penn State holds a 39-2-1 record against Maryland since 1917. Maryland was able to secure a victory in the first matchup between the teams as Big Ten foes in 2014, but since, the Nittany Lions have won by an average margin of over 30 points per game. It’s a new era in College Park under Mike Locksley, but whether or not he can handle a powerhouse like Penn State has yet to be seen.

“These guys are a well-coached bunch and they’ve got them playing at a high level, so for us, we’re going to have to obviously match them with their execution and how we approach the game,” Locklsey said. “Our guys will be excited about this opportunity, but we’re going to have to go out and play well to have an opportunity to take care of business.”

2. Can Josh Jackson get back on track? Simply put, Jackson did not play well enough for Maryland football to beat Temple two weeks ago. He completed just 15 passes on 38 attempts for 183 yards, scoring a touchdown while also throwing an interception. A portion of his struggles could be attributed to poor offensive line play — Temple was able to get pressure on a high percentage of plays — but he still missed throws and had trouble making his reads. If Maryland is to have any chance of winning on Friday, Jackson will have to be much better.

3. How does the new-look Nittany Lions offense fare? Over the past few years, Penn State’s offense has been led by familiar faces in Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders. Now, Sean Clifford is under center, and he's joined in the backfield by Journey Brown and Devyn Ford. They'll face a Terps defense that has been stout so far this season, especially when it comes to stopping the run.

Predictions

Vegas: Penn State -6.5, O/U 61.5 (as of Thursday morning)

ESPN FPI: Maryland 29.1% chance to win

Me: Penn State 38, Maryland 24

Catch up before the game

Opponent film breakdown: Scouting No. 12 Penn State

Key injuries leave Maryland football looking to new playmakers against No. 12 Penn State

Maryland football plans to put its offensive woes against Penn State in the rear view mirror

A lopsided affair: A history of Maryland football vs Penn State

Maryland Stadium sold out for Friday night against No. 12 Penn State

Testudo Times Podcast: Friday Night Lights