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Maryland football vs. Penn State preview: A trip to Happy Valley

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The Terps look to build off of an overtime comeback win against Minnesota.

Minnesota v Maryland Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images

Less than 48 hours after its come-from-behind win over Minnesota, Maryland football was back in practice looking forward.

The next key step for this Maryland program is competitively battling with the upper-tier of teams within its division of the Big Ten. Last season, many thought the Terps may have turned the corner heading into its Friday Night Lights against Penn State, but a 59-0 result flattened the program and kicked off a somber stretch to end the season.

This Maryland team does present a different challenge though. Penn State, which ranks in the middle or bottom of the pack in the Big Ten in most statistical categories, has not been overly impressive to start the season with its first 0-2 start since 2012..

For the Terrapins, finding their footing last week on both sides of the ball has renewed confidence that if the program does what it’s supposed to and counters its opposition well, it can hang with any team.

“It’s a team sport,” Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa said after Friday’s win. “We started off strong, and their name. And like I said, you know, it shows a lot about our team that we played all five quarters today. We complemented each other offense was down, you know, the defense stepped up and defense was down often step up. I think that shows the Brotherhood that we have to depend on each other, just to fight it. So hopefully we can build on some of this.”

On Thursday, Locksley noted that defensive end Joseph Boletepeli would be able to play against Penn State. He did note that JACK linebacker Durrell Nchami and inside linebacker Shaq Smith would be out. The status of running back Tayon Fleet-Davis remains up in the air as he looks to play his first game of the 2020 season.

Kickoff between Maryland and Penn State is set for 3:30 at Beaver Stadium and will be televised on the Big Ten Network,

Penn State Nittany Lions (0-2)

2019 Record: (11-2, 7-2 Big Ten)

Head coach James Franklin is a well-known name to Maryland fans as he was once the head coach in waiting behind Ralph Friedgen, but changes across the athletic department shook up the program. After spending a few season at Vanderbilt, Franklin took the head coaching job at Penn State in 2014 —just so happening to lineup with the Terps entering the conference. Under Franklin’s direction, Penn State has amassed a 56-25 record and held a solid spot towards the top of the Big Ten East division, but hasn’t quite been able to top Ohio State.

A competitive overtime 36-35 loss against Indiana opened his program’s 2020 campaign, while a lackluster first half against Ohio State led the way to a 38-25 loss the following week. The winless start has begun to cast a shadow in Happy Valley, with this weekend’s matchup serving as a true baseline test for head coach James Franklin’s team.

Players to know

Sean Clifford, redshirt junior quarterback, 6’2, 217 lbs., No. 14 Clifford has become a dominant force for Penn State and a true offensive leader. Last season against Maryland, he had one of the best nights of his career, completing 83.9 percent of his passes for 398 yards and three touchdowns.

In 2020, Clifford has assumed an even larger role with the lack of help at the running backs position with its top two options, Journey Brown and Noah Cain, both out. He leads the team with 519 passing yards with six touchdowns in the air and 155 yards and one touchdown on the ground. He has thrown three interceptions on the season, however.

Jahan Dotson, junior wide receiver, 5’11, 182 lbs., No. 5 Dotson has proved himself to be the top wide receiver target for Clifford. Through two games, he has 12 catches for 238 yards and four touchdowns.

Maryland true freshman Tarheeb Still has started at cornerback through Maryland’s first two games of the season, with Deonte Banks and Jakorian Bennett battling it out on the other side. The entire secondary, however, will be responsible for stopping the passing attack.

“Obviously being a true freshman playing and starting the last two games at the corner position, I’ve been really impressed with how [Still] competes,” Locksley said. “The Dotson kid really had a good game last week and a guy that I’m very familiar with, having recruited him. ... [Still’s] got a tough task this weekend with the receivers of Penn State and the quarterback they have and we got our work cut out for us on the back end defensively.

Pat Freiermuth, junior tight end, 6’5, 258 lbs., No. 87 After a strong All-Big Ten campaign in 2019, Freiermuth returned to his key role in 2020. Through two games, he has 10 catches for 106 yards and one touchdown, only trailing Dotson in each of those receiving categories.

Freiermuth presents great size on the edge as a receiver or blocker, presenting a tough matchup for any defense. With the lack of a rushing offense and questions about the Maryland defense, look for Clifford to keep connected with one of his most reliable targets.

Strength

Offensive potential. Under Franklin, the Penn State offense has become a real force in the Big Ten. Maryland fans have seen that force in action over the past four seasons with the Nittany Lions winning all four matchups by an average of over 45 points each game.

The 2020 offense has much a much different look with the loss of KJ Hamler to the NFL and other key players, but there are still weapons and potential.

“They’re a sound offense,” Maryland safety Jordan Mosely said. “Everybody’s got to do their job. We know that they are very talented. ... So everybody has to understand their assignment and do what they need to do to let us win.”

Weakness

Defensive consistency. Penn State is without a doubt one of the deepest programs in the nation thanks to the recruiting efforts of Franklin, making them a true power. But in 2020, the Nittany Lion defense has not quite played up to the level that many are used to.

After the tough loss to Indiana and a poor first half showing against Ohio State, questions are still in the air about just how good this Penn State defense is. This matchup against Maryland will shed some light on if the first two matchups were wearing the rust off or exposing real problems.

Three things to watch

1. Will the Maryland defense stand its ground? The Terps had a very lackluster segment of defense during the middle of its matchup against Minnesota, but the team came together and helped pull out a victory. Junior Lawtez Rogers mentioned after the game that extra energy fueled the final push in which everyone stepped up. Against Penn State, it’ll be about the Terps playing with that fire for four quarters from the start, especially in improving their run defense.

“I’ve been pleased with the interior parts of our defense, but we haven’t been really good on the edge,” Locksley said. “I’d venture to say that we haven’t played consistently well. ... It puts a little pressure on our secondary to have to play man coverage on the back end and limit the big plays in the passing game, but I’m hoping that we can build off of how we played defense in the fourth quarter against Minnesota.”

2. Will Penn State develop a more stable rushing attack? The Nittany Lions seemed to be deep at the running back position with Journey Brown, Noah Cain and Devyn Ford on the roster in 2020, but Brown and Cain are expected to be out for the rest of the season.

Ford has 28 carries for 106 yards and one touchdown in 2020, along with only averaging 3.8 yards per carry, which is nowhere near the production that Penn State is used to. How fast freshmen Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes can develop will be important to the balancing of this offense.

3. Can the Terps carry momentum? Last season, Maryland football was on a roll to start the season. Even though the Terps got tripped up by Temple, College Park was buzzing for the matchup against Penn State that ended in the 59-point blowout.

There is, however, a different sense of momentum in 2020 for Maryland after the overtime comeback against Minnesota. While nobody is talking about the team deserving to be ranked, and the odds are not in the team’s favor at all against Penn State, those around the program are hoping that the Terps can take another step forward by playing their game and hanging with the opponent at the minimum.

Predictions

Vegas: Penn State -25, O/U 64

ESPN FPI: Maryland 2.9 % chance to win

Me: Penn State 35, Maryland 17