Penn State sits outside the first College Football Playoff rankings, the product of a three-game losing streak with Illinois as the undesirable centerpiece.
How they respond marks a familiar question for the Lions, who sat in a similar position in 2020, following a loss to Ohio State with the meltdown vs. Maryland. In a non-COVID season, that won't play.
Penn State (5-3) vs. Maryland (5-3)
- When: 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday
- Where: Maryland Stadium
- TV: FS1
- Streaming: fuboTV
- Betting Line: Penn State is a 10-point favorite, according to SI Sports Book
- Series History: Penn State leads 40-3-1
- Last Meeting: Maryland 35-19 in 2020
- Streaks: Penn State has won 13 consecutive road games at Maryland
Why Penn State is Missing the Big Plays Lately
What happened to the big-play offense? The Lions have 36 offensive plays this season of 20+ yards, just four more than they did through seven games in 2020. Penn State coach James Franklin and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich define explosive plays as gameplan cornerstones, and the Lions haven't produced them lately.
The offense has made one play longer than 40 yards (Sean Clifford's 42-yard touchdown pass to KeAndre Lambert-Smith against Illinois) in the past three weeks. It has generated six plays of 20+ yards in the past three games and just two against Illinois.
Clearly, Clifford's health is central to this statistic. But Penn State has lost the explosive-play stat the past two weeks, and its longest rushing touchdown is 5 yards (Noah Cain vs. Ball State). For all the creative play formations Yurich has devised, the Lions either aren't executing them or are calling them at the wrong time.
"Obviously the next step is being able to make some of those guys miss and break some tackles in the hole and accelerate and take it the distance, whether it's 40, 50, 60, 80 yards, whatever it may be, and we haven't had that," Franklin said. "So that's something we need to do. ... Some of it as well is the [run-pass option] game that can create some challenges and put some people in conflict. I think our RPO game will become more explosive in the [passing game] now that people will have to respect the run, once we show that we're going to do it again this week."
Penn State Players to Watch
Keyvone Lee: The team's only running back with a 70-yard game, Lee represents Penn State's best chance to generate some consistency. But if the Lions continue their backfield rotation, Lee will have to impact the game with fewer carries.
Caedan Wallace: The right tackle ceded playing time to Bryce Effner last week, partly because of an injury. The Lions are thin on experienced tackles, so Wallace's presence is vital.
Daequan Hardy: The defense's nickel back has allowed just 10 receptions (and no touchdowns) in 22 targets this season, according to Sports Info Solutions. Maryland had a big game passing last week, making Hardy a defensive pivot point.
Maryland Players to Watch
Taulia Tagovailoa: The Terps quarterback threw for 419 yards against Indiana last week, leads the Big Ten in yards (2,384) and ranks second in completion percentage (70.2). Penn State's defense mostly has kept prolific offenses out of the end zone and could do with getting some pressure on Tagovailoa.
Rakim Jarrett: The receiver exploited Penn State's coverage lapses mercilessly last season, generating 144 yards and two scores in a blowout win. The Lions likely will attach a cornerback and safety to Jarrett's deep routes to mitigate the big plays.
Tarheeb Still: The cornerback has broken up 16 passes in his first 12 games and will be a thorn in Penn State's passing game. But he also has allowed four touchdown passes this season.
Five Things You Should Know
1. Penn State has won its last two games in College Park by a combined score of 125-3. The Terps have scored one touchdown at home against Penn State in their last three games.
2. Though Penn State's defense ranks sixth in the Big Ten in yards allowed (342.1 per game), it leads the nation in red-zone touchdown efficiency (27.59-percent success rate).
3. Defensive end Arnold Ebiketie leads all Power 5 defensive linemen with 11.5 tackles for loss.
4. Nineteen Penn State players are from Maryland, including eight who have started games this season.
5. Penn State receiver Jahan Dotson has nine 100-yard receiving games, tied for third all-time with Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton and Joe Jurevicius.
Penn State begins the back third of its schedule with a potentially sneaky-good game in College Park. The Lions' secondary likely will frustrate Maryland by allowing big yards but little in the red zone.
Ohio State stalled repeatedly last week, kicking four field goals, but banked a defensive touchdown and three turnovers. The defense also wants to uproot Tagovailoa, make him uncomfortable and force him into bad decisions.
Maryland's defense ranks 13th in the Big Ten in scoring (30.4 ppg) and is ripe for a Penn State offense that hasn't reached 30 against a Power 5 opponent this season. As long as they've detoxified from the past three weeks, the Lions win comfortably.
Penn State 31, Maryland 14