No. 12 Penn State faces regional rival Maryland

Penn State wide receiver KJ Hamler (1) breaks away from Pittsburgh defensive back Paris Ford (12) in the first half of an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019.

STATE COLLEGE – Well-rested Penn State (3-0) and Maryland (2-1), both coming off bye weeks, go at it tonight in College Park. The game (8 p.m., FS1) will be the Nittany Lions’ 26th all-time regular-season Friday night contest and the Big Ten opener for both teams.

No. 12 Penn State will look for consistency, while unranked Maryland hopes to return to the win column after its Sept. 14 loss to Temple.

“(I) go back a long time with Coach (Mike) Locksley,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “We have a lot of respect for what they have been able to do so far there in that program. Always felt like that program had a lot of talent and I think Mike is doing a good job taking advantage of it.”

Maryland’s defense has yielded just 40 points this season. The Terrapins blanked Howard in Week 1, and previously ranked No. 21 Syracuse and Temple both scored 20 points against the Terrapins in back-to-back contests. The unit has thrived under first-year head coach Mike Locksley as Maryland ranks No. 14 nationally in scoring defense (13.3 points per game). Linebacker Keandre Jones enters Friday’s contest with 15 tackles, four sacks and a forced fumble.

The Terrapins have been formidable against the run. Through three games, they’ve allowed 73.7 yards per game to opposing offenses, tenth best in the country.

Penn State’s run defense sits just above Maryland at No. 9 nationally. It’s yielded just 70.7 yards rushing per game to opponents.

The Terrapins on offense have been explosive in the early season. They've outscored opponents 162-40. Penn State and Maryland were the Big Ten’s lone two teams in Week 1 to score 79 points.

Maryland’s success on offense can be attributed to a dominant rushing attack that ranks eighth nationally at 277.3 yards per game. Anthony McFarland Jr. leads the position group with 233 yards rushing and five touchdowns. Backfield mate Javon Leake is averaging 10.4 yards per run.

“They have a very strong run game,” Penn State linebacker Cam Brown said. “Anthony McFarland is running extremely hard right now. Their biggest challenge is going to be us recognizing all the formations because they run a lot of formations out of different packages. I feel like that’s going to be the biggest challenge for us.”

Maryland’s run game will be tested as it will be without a veteran starter on the offensive line. Right guard Terrance Davis, who accumulated a team-high 30 starts, suffered an injury against Temple that will sideline him for a handful of weeks.

Penn State’s offense will look to pull together four consistent quarters and improve on its third-down efficiency. Penn State has only converted seven of its 30 third-down attempts this season. The Nittany Lions rank 127th out of 130 teams nationally in the category.

“We have to be better on third down, and I think obviously the better we are on third down, we’ll create more opportunities on first and second down, which we’ve been pretty good at,” Franklin said. “It will create more opportunities in the red zone.”

Franklin this week reiterated his position of using all four Penn State running backs against the Terrapins. Journey Brown (Meadville High) received the start against Pittsburgh and rushed for a game-high 109 yards on 10 carries. He has a group-best 175 yards and two touchdowns. Noah Cain has four touchdowns in three games.

Friday pits Penn State’s red zone offense (tied for No. 1 nationally) against a Maryland red zone defense (57.1 percent) that ranks sixth in the nation. The Nittany Lions have netted points in all 12 of their red zone attempts.

“I know it’s going to be a good game,” Franklin said. “Our guys are excited about it. We have a bunch of Maryland guys on our team. We are excited to go play a good opponent on the road in a Big Ten game.”

The Nittany Lions own a 39-2-1 series advantage over the Terrapins.

Elton Hayes is a veteran sports writer who covers Penn State for CNHI LLC publications. Contact him at ehayes@cnhi.com or follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.

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