No. 12 Penn State could be on its way to a New Year’s Six bowl but, for that to happen, the Nittany Lions first need to get past unranked Maryland. Here are the key matchups to Saturday’s game in Happy Valley that we think will go a long way in determining the winner:
Josh Moyer: Maryland rushing offense vs. Penn State defense
Let’s not over-complicate this. Much like Wisconsin, the Terps’ success is inextricably linked to their run game, which is ranked No. 17 nationally — so if you stop the run, you stop the Terps.
That fact has been shown time and time again this year. When Maryland rushes for fewer than 200 yards, it’s 1-4 this season. When it rushes for more than 200 yards? Try 4-2, with those two losses coming in a 52-51 overtime loss to Ohio State and a 34-32 slip-up against Indiana. Hardly faults of the offense.
RB Anthony McFarland has come on especially strong in the last two games, running for 298 yards last week against Ohio State and 210 against Indiana the week before. James Franklin said the redshirt freshman had “legitimate 4.3” speed, and he’s the obvious home run threat. But he’s far from the only threat — the speedy Ty Johnson (7.7 ypc) is finally expected to return to the lineup Saturday, Tayvon Fleet-Davis adds some power in the backfield, and at least two others have the potential to catch lightning in a bottle.
With all the shifts, motions and misdirections in this offense, Penn State is fortunate this game is occurring later in the season when the defense has already learned to be more gap accountable. But this is a rushing offense that can break one in much the same way Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor opened the matchup two weeks ago with a 71-yard touchdown run.
The run game is more important now to Maryland than it’s been all season. Quarterback Kasim Hill suffered a torn ACL against Indiana, forcing the more fleet-footed Tyrrell Pigrome under center. Maryland already rushed on 67.3 percent of its plays but, with Pigrome starting last week, that number increased to 77 percent.
The Nittany Lion’s defensive line is playing its best football of the season, linebacker Micah Parsons is slowly evolving into an all-conference player, and this defense is improving. But it still has the nation’s No. 79 run defense — and it’ll have its hands full Saturday afternoon against a strong Maryland ground game. Whoever wins that matchup may just win the game.
John McGonigal: Maryland’s Jeshaun Jones vs. Penn State’s back seven
Rarely does Maryland move the ball through the air. That’s no secret, as the Terrapins rank 122nd nationally in passing yards per game.
But if the Terps are going to pull the upset, they’ll need a big play or two by Jeshaun Jones. And they might get it.
Jones is Maryland’s second-leading receiver with 271 yards, behind Taivon Jacobs’ 298. Nothing crazy. But the true freshman has a penchant for finding the end zone.
Jones has seven touchdowns on just 35 touches (20 receptions, 15 rushes). Five of those are receiving scores. Only two wideouts — Oklahoma’s Lee Morris and Miami’s Lawrence Cager — have more scores on 20 catches or fewer.
Jones’ touchdowns are timely, too. The Florida native had a 65-yard scoring snag, a 28-yard dash to the end zone and even a 20-yard touchdown toss in Maryland’s season-opening win over Texas. Jones also had a 27-yard touchdown reception in the Terps’ 52-51 overtime loss to Ohio State.
Now, it’s puzzling that Jones doesn’t get more touches. Seventeen of his 35 touches have come in two games, and he produced when given the opportunity — accounting for 202 scrimmage yards against Indiana and Illinois.
But if he’s given the chance in Happy Valley, Jones might be able to crack the Nittany Lions’ second level.