COLLEGE PARK, Md.—Welcome to Friday night football on the East Coast, where highly anticipated conference home games in packed-to-the-gills stadiums turned into full-on nightmares for Maryland and Virginia Tech. Penn State and Duke, respectively, dropped their hammers, chasing out fans before the fourth quarter and winning by a combined 97-10 score.
This was not how it was supposed to go. The Terrapins welcomed its largest crowd since 2011, even moving in additional seating on the concourse. The last time they played here, they whipped then-top 25 Syracuse 63-20. The loss at Temple a couple of weeks ago was billed by the program as nothing more than an outlier performance. It is no longer an outlier, and Penn State very early on assured us all of such. The 12-ranked Nittany Lions (4-0) led 28-0 about 20 minutes into the game, eventually finishing off the Terps (2-2) for a 59-0 win. They did whatever they wanted to do, just like Duke did while playing a state over.
The Blue Devils crushed the Hokies 45-10 in what may be one of the most stunning outcomes in Blacksburg in a long, long time. Duke rolled up 422 yards of offense, converted half of its third downs and averaged 5.7 yards a rush. What is going on in Blacksburg? We don’t know, but the downward wins trend of Justin Fuente’s tenure—10 wins in 2016, 9 wins in 2017, 6 wins last year—has potential to continue. We visited Blacksburg in August for a story about how the Hokies say they are no longer the divided team they were last season. So about that…
Meanwhile, the result here in College Park was more anticipated. The Terps are in Year 1 of Mike Locksley’s tenure, and the Nittany Lions appear to be a real contender in the Big Ten East. Their defense entered the night giving up the third-fewest points of anyone nationally, and they actually improved on that. Trace McSorley’s replacement at quarterback, Sean Clifford, made smart decisions (he was 26-for-31, 398 yards) and showed some wheels (7 carries, 54 yards) in his less than three quarters of work. They’ve got one of the nation’s best receivers, KJ Hamler, who put on a show himself (6 catches, 108 yards), and they use a strong three-headed rushing attack that averaged 4.8 yards a carry. “We’re electric,” says Hamler. “We’ve got some more to show.” Coach James Franklin called it maybe the most complete game in his six years as coach. “Our culture is really good,” he said afterward. “Our chemistry is really good.”
The question begs: Are they a real challenger to Ohio State? “We can compete with anybody,” running back Journey Brown said. Of course, many more hurdles lie ahead before the Nov. 23 meeting at the Shoe. They’ll travel to Iowa, host Michigan and play at Michigan State. Franklin seems to have a well-rounded bunch that can scare even top-25 clubs on the road. He let up on his former employer on Friday night, yanking many of his offensive starters by the time the fourth quarter arrived.
This one had some juicy storylines. Maryland honored former coach Ralph Friedgen on the field after the first quarter, an interestingly timed move. Franklin was the head-coach-in-waiting to Friedgen before an athletic director change at the school resulted in the removal of such a tag. He left to become the head coach at Vanderbilt in 2010, and a day later, that athletic director, Kevin Anderson, fired Friedgen.
That was Franklin’s second stint with the Terps. He served on Friedgen’s staff along with Locksley in 2001-02. Friday night was another walloping of his ex-employer. In fact, this so-called rivalry series has been just about as heavily one-sided as you’ll see of any Power 5 series. The Nittany Lions have out-scored the Terps 184-6 in the last 14 quarters they’ve played. Maryland hasn’t scored on Penn State in seven quarters. The Terps have had—get this—47 possessions against PSU without a TD, a span that stretches 210 minutes, 53 seconds. It is somewhat inexplicable, and the latest meeting Friday casts doubt on the Terps reaching a bowl in Locksley’s first season. A team that scored 142 points in its first two games—vs. Howard and Syracuse—has managed a combined 17 points in losses to Temple and the Lions. Quarterback Josh Jackson, a Virginia Tech transfer, threw two first-half interceptions and was pulled from the game for several series. He faced a ruthless Penn State defense that has now allowed 30 points in four games and “got the crowd out of it” early on by picking off Jackson twice, one on the goal line.
“This team was ranked a few weeks ago,” Franklin said. “Lots of buzz.” His Lions silenced the chatter, chased out fans by halftime and announced their candidacy as a challenger to the fifth-ranked Buckeyes—all of it coming on a wacky Friday night on the East Coast, a prelude to what’s sure to be another crazy Saturday in college football.