But bigger tests are to come for the Nittany Lions
Maryland’s explosive offense and overall speed led to blowout wins over Howard and Syracuse and a brief stay in the Top 25.
But that was before Friday night. Shortly after the Big Ten opener began at Maryland Stadium, it was apparent that Penn State’s defense was much faster. The Nittany Lions made the Terrapins look like, well, turtles.
Penn State routed Maryland 59-0, its fourth consecutive win in the series by at least 24 points. The Lions smothered Anthony McFarland, a 1,000-yard rusher as a freshman last year, for the second straight time and kept the Terps out of the end zone for the third consecutive meeting.
Maryland didn’t reach 100 total yards until late in the third quarter against Penn State’s reserves. Remember that this was a team that had been averaging 53.0 points and 537.7 total yards a game.
“We played at a high level defensively,” Lions coach James Franklin said. “That team’s been putting up a bunch of points with challenging schemes and challenging personnel. Our defense is playing with a lot of confidence.”
Penn State has limited opponents to 30 points; only Wisconsin has allowed fewer points (29) in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
This is the first Nittany Lions team since 1996 and just the fifth since World War II to hold opponents to 13 points or less in its first four games. Before Saturday, they were one of eight teams in the nation to not allow a point in the first quarter this season.
“I was very confident going to bed (Thursday) night that the staff and the players had maximized the bye week the way we should have,” Franklin said. “We were fresh. We were excited. We were prepared.”
Several days before the game, linebacker Cam Brown all but scoffed at a question about Maryland’s offense.
“I feel like we have the talent and the coaching to do anything against them,” Brown said.
Penn State dominated Maryland with its speed and its depth. The Terps crossed midfield just once, and that drive ended with Tariq Castro-Fields intercepting Josh Jackson’s pass in the end zone in the first quarter.
“I’m extremely proud of the way our defense played,” said end Yetur Gross-Matos, who had two tackles in the backfield. “We’ve been on it for two weeks and going really hard. Everything that we practiced came to fruition.”
One of the most impressive things about the defense came after star linebacker Micah Parsons was ejected for targeting in the first quarter with Penn State leading 14-0. Jesse Luketa replaced him and was very active, nearly coming away with a pick-six.
“I think our defense played really well,” said middle linebacker Jan Johnson, who had a first-quarter interception. “We had a bunch of guys step up. Jesse played a hell of a game after Micah got ejected. Jesse came in and didn’t skip a beat.
“Jesse played awesome. Ellis (Brooks) played awesome. And our d-line was awesome. They really stopped the run. Maryland really couldn’t do a whole lot against us.”
This is the fastest defense that Penn State has had in a long time. It’s the deepest group that I can remember.
“It’s incredible,” Gross-Matos said. “We have people coming out of the two- and three-deep who are producing just as well as the first group. We have the kind of depth that makes it easier on everyone.”
How good is the Penn State defense and how good can it be? We’ll find out during an upcoming three-game stretch against Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State that will shape this season.
“We can get better at some things,” Gross-Matos said.
The Lions created three Maryland turnovers, which has been a point of emphasis. They also need to show they can contain Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State before they can be compared to the best defenses in school history.
But they’ve been terrific so far.
“The sky’s the limit for us,” Gross-Matos said. “I would say we’re capable of anything as long as we play our game and play disciplined.”
Contact Rich Scarcella: 610-371-5070 or [email protected]
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