Maryland football was riding high heading into its Friday night matchup against Penn State. A total of 53,228 fans, good for sixth best in program history, were on hand to witness what turned out to be a 59-0 Penn State victory.
The Nittany Lions were clearly dominant on the scoreboard and stat sheet, but much more went into the final score than the numbers themselves.
Here’s a closer look at the game film, so you can see exactly what went wrong for the Terps.
Josh Jackson struggled to make plays
Part of Jackson’s inability to make plays throughout this game stemmed from offensive line play (more on that later), but he didn't exactly help himself with his reads.
Similar to the last time out against Temple, Jackson started this game by throwing an interception on Maryland’s first drive which resulted in a quick 7-0 score for Penn State.
For the second consecutive game, Maryland quarterback Josh Jackson throws an interception on the game's opening drive.— Sean Montiel (@SeanMMontiel) September 28, 2019
Not how the Terps wanted to start this one. pic.twitter.com/WKT4T84S4x
Jackson takes a shotgun snap and does well to step up to the right in order to avoid pressure and notices that wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr. has an advanced step on his man, cutting his skinny post route up the middle of the field.
Penn State linebacker Jan Johnson notices this lock by Jackson and fades off of his coverage to snag the interception as Jackson failed to get enough air under the ball to reach Demus.
After going down 14-0, Maryland had a chance to answer and drove all the way down inside the red zone from its own 25 yard line. This is when Jackson tried to hit tight end Tyler Mabry on an out route toward the pylon, but Penn State defensive back Tariq Castro-Fields read it all the way and came up with the interception.
As seen from this sideline angle, Jackson locked on to Mabry at the top of his drop back, which gave Castro-Fields the confidence to back off of his coverage of running back Javon Leake in the flat to assist his teammate guarding the goal line.
It is paramount that a quarterback goes through a progression when passing the ball so that defenses cannot read where the play is going.
Jackson didn’t do that, however, as it was extremely evident from the moment the ball was snapped that he was throwing to Mabry. And he didn't take advantage of the few options that were available in various degrees of openness, with Leake having yards of separation between him and Castro-Fields.
This isn’t quite all Jackson’s fault however...
The offensive line continued to struggle
Part of the issue with Jackson not making reads stems from a lack of time to sit back in the pocket. Against Howard and Syracuse, the offensive line was able to get a push and force ends around Jackson, giving him a pocket to operate in.
Temple and Penn State have exposed the offensive line by breaking through the middle and shedding block to collapse the pocket quickly.
On this play in the second quarter, senior offensive lineman Ellis McKennie and the right side of Maryland’s offensive line gets overloaded. So when Leake goes to cut down on the blitzing end, it allows a delayed linebacker to create pressure up the middle.
Taking an eight yard sack in this situation on third down at midfield turned a potential four-down territory mindset into one of nine Maryland punts on the evening.
The run game is supposed to be what helps keep teams honest against the Terps on offense, but the offensive line was unable to help the running back stable make plays as well.
Maryland totaled just 60 yards on 34 rushes as a team, which was 101 yards worse than its next-lowest performance on the season against Temple. In both matchups, an inability to create a push up front made it easy for defenses to limit the Terps’ rushing attack and focus on defending the pass.
The defense left too much open space
Penn State’s offense is one that thrives on getting its playmakers in open space. This forces defenses to decide between trying to keep up with a man set or trying to limit potential threats with a zone.
Penn State running back Journey Brown was on a journey...— Sean Montiel (@SeanMMontiel) September 28, 2019
To the endzone. pic.twitter.com/FM9ltC8nlI
Towards the end of the second quarter, Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford did well to avoid the Maryland pressure and force linebacker Ayinde Eley to either stop him or running back Journey Brown. Eley keyed in on Clifford, resulting in an easy dump off to Brown in space for the score.
The Terrapins were ultimately able to get some pressure and force Clifford out of the pocket, but he did well to avoid the pressure and manage the game without being sacked.
When Maryland did do well to pressure and cover targets, Clifford was able to hold onto the ball and use his speed for some big gains. He actually led the Nittany Lions with seven rushes for 54 yards – and average of 7.7 yards per carry – and the game’s opening score on the ground.
It’s often hard for teams to matchup one for one with the level of athletes that Penn State has across the board, and Maryland once again learned that lesson first hand on Friday night. Attempting to do so simply lead to the doors being blown off, then forcing the Terps to just try and soften the blows down the stretch.
Nick Cross proved himself on a big stage
After safety Deon Jones was ejected for targeting in the second quarter, true freshman Nick Cross was thrown into the fire and took it in stride.
The highest-rated signee of Mike Locksley’s 2019 haul finished with three tackles, two of which were solo, along with one pass deflection and an interception — one of Maryland’s only bright spots of the night.
What a grab from freshman defensive back Nick Cross.— Sean Montiel (@SeanMMontiel) September 28, 2019
The interception Maryland needed. pic.twitter.com/eJOEiMu6y4
On the second quarter interception, Cross was able to use his instinct and speed to help senior cornerback Tino Ellis in coverage down the sideline. As seen from the back angle, Cross almost floats in the air to pull in the ball at the high point and manages to sneak his foot down to complete the play.
He also managed to help senior defensive back Antoine Brooks Jr. cover this clear out route in the third quarter, saving a potential big gain that would have set up a touchdown.
Cross came into camp with the ability to make a difference, but it remained to be seen whether or not the staff wanted to put him out there so early in his career. With his participation against Penn State, Cross has now played in the maximum four games to maintain his redshirt season. But, if injuries strike or the staff feels he gives the team its best chance to win, don’t be surprised to see Cross on the field.
The bottom line
This was just not a pretty game for Maryland fans to witness. For the second game in a row, the Terrapins struggled on offense and couldn’t make a difference on the defensive end.
Maryland will need to find ways to generate a push from the offensive line first, and other fixes in the passing and run games can be ironed out from there.
Locksley and his staff face a stretch of four games against Rutgers, Purdue, Indiana and Minnesota, with the Hoosiers coming to College Park for the Terps’ lone home matchup of that stretch. Those games give this team a good chance to revisit its struggles in the last two contests and attempt to build positive momentum before facing Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan State to close out the season.