It’s Senior Day in Happy Valley Saturday and 21 Nittany Lions will be playing their final home game in Beaver Stadium against Maryland.
While No. 14 Penn State (8-3, 5-3) has one more chance to jockey for bowl position in the postseason, the Terrapins (5-6, 3-6) have one more chance. Period. A sixth win makes Maryland bowl eligible.
And a loss will not only cap the career of Maryland’s senior class, some of whom have played for four different coaches over their tenure, but it will likely mean more players and coaches leaving the program as the tumult from the summertime death of Terrapins lineman Jordan McNair from heatstroke continues.
“We’re really proud of how our players have played,” said Maryland interim head coach Matt Canada, who replaced DJ Durkin. “The last two weeks I wish we’d have won. I wish the kids would’ve had that success. Obviously Saturday my only focus will be finding a way to win the game.”
Since reaching five victories, the Terrapins have lost their last two games by a total of three points, including last week’s 52-51 overtime setback to powerful Ohio State. The Terrapins’ effort in that game certainly got Penn State’s attention, particularly the 51 points and 535 total yards Maryland rang up.
“What Coach Canada has done is really impressive,” said Penn State coach James Franklin. “He is very respected as an offensive coordinator. Offensively, they do a great job with motions, shifts and unbalanced (formations). They try to create conflict those ways — speed sweeps, fake speed sweeps, inside zone (runs) — they have an absurd number of explosive plays.”
Franklin, now in his fifth year at Penn State, knows of whence he speaks. He was once the young, up-and-coming offensive coordinator at, of all places, Maryland. The Pennsylvania native had two stints with the Terrapins around some time in the NFL, including serving as the “head coach in waiting” behind Ralph Friedgen in 2010.
Ultimately, he left for the head job at Vanderbilt when then-new Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson forced Friedgen out and conducted a national search that landed Randy Edsall in College Park, after Friedgen’s nine-win season in 2010.
The Terps haven’t won more than seven games since, and Franklin has gone on to relaunch Vanderbilt’s program and then help take Penn State back to national prominence. Based on his regional roots and experience in College Park, Franklin loves to beat Maryland and has done so handily in recent years, 38-14 in 2016, and that 66-3 beat-down last year in Maryland Stadium, Penn State’s largest Big Ten win ever. In his postgame remarks after the Nittany Lions’ 20-7 win over Rutgers last week, Franklin implored fans and former letter winners to come back to State College and fill the stadium for Senior Day to honor this senior class and help add to Penn State’s 38-2-1 all-time record against the Terrapins.
“It’s going to be a pretty significant week next week,” Franklin said. “This senior class has a chance to do some really great things and end this season on a really positive note. You think about this senior class, these guys and what they’ve meant to Penn State in our history, in our resurrection in some ways, I hope the stadium is sold out.”
One of Penn State’s seniors is preseason Heisman Trophy candidate, quarterback Trace McSorley, who hasn’t had that kind of year after all. He hasn’t thrown for 300 yards in a game this season and is averaging just 181.4 yards in conference play. Overall, though, McSorley owns Penn State career records for passing yards (9,423), 300-yard passing games (10), 200-yard passing games (26), rushing touchdowns by a QB (27), passing touchdowns (74), among other records.
“Offensively, it starts with him, but they’ve got an awful lot of good players around him,” said Canada of McSorley. “They make plays. They run the football. They’ve got good talent on the edge. They go up and make plays. We’ll see what the weather is like Saturday. That could be challenging and that could have something to do with everything.”
The Terrapins weathered No. 10 Ohio State well last week. That is until quarterback Dwayne Haskins got going. He threw for 405 yards, two touchdowns and ran for three more, and that’s the worry with a talent like McSorley. The Maryland secondary has been improved this year, and in fact leads the nation with 18 total interceptions, including at least one in every game. This matchup — McSorley vs. Maryland’s pass defense — could be key if cold, possibly rainy or icy weather allows.
Maryland, meanwhile, counters with a running attack ranked third in the Big Ten with 244.4 yards per game. Redshirt freshman Anthony McFarland rushed 21 times for 298 yards against Ohio State to earn conference freshman of the week honors, breaking the Maryland freshman record of 210 yards he set the week before.