Although Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg's production had dipped this season, the Maryland defense knew it faced a formidable task when it lined up across from him Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium.
So its strategy centered on pressuring Hackenberg and getting him "off his spot" before he could make throws. The Nittany Lions offensive line had been porous, so the Terps knew that there was the chance to fluster a presumed early pick in April's NFL draft.
The strategy worked, sort of. Maryland held Hackenberg to 13 of 29 passing, his 44.8 completion percentage the second-lowest mark of the season. But those 13 completions went for 315 yards and three touchdowns, and Penn State escaped Baltimore with a 31-30 victory, thanks in part to Hackenberg and his wide receivers' penchant for big plays.
"The big plays through the air are the byproduct of us being aggressive on the defensive side of the ball, and as I told those guys going into the game, I didn't want them playing tentative," interim coach Mike Locksley said Saturday. "I wanted to be really aggressive at the line of scrimmage. I thought for the most part, if you look at those big plays, we had guys in position, but we didn't play the ball in the air. That's a fundamental thing that needs to get corrected."
Hackenberg had been sacked 24 times entering Saturday, which was the most among Power Five quarterbacks. Maryland got to him three more times and was able to put consistent pressure on him. Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue sacked him twice and caused an intentional grounding penalty. It was part of the strategy, with a variety of blitzes coming from different angles.
"When any quarterback's under pressure, they make bad decisions," Ngakoue said.
Maryland, though, couldn't force enough bad decisions. Even with pressure on Hackenberg, the quarterback was still able to get the ball downfield and make big plays. His completions went for an average of 24.2 yards, well above his season average of 12.8 yards entering Saturday. Ten of his 13 completions went for at least 17 yards, and five went for at least 30 yards. His wide receiving corps of Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall and Geno Lewis came through for him.
"They came out and threw the kitchen sink at us, and we were able to react and make plays and do what we needed to do to get the job done," Hackenberg said.
Hackenberg's touchdown passes went for 37, 20 and 27 yards, and each gave the Nittany Lions the lead. On the first, Hackenberg hit Godwin, who finished with four catches for 135 yards, up the left side in a one-on-one matchup with safety Anthony Nixon. The two were tangled up — Nixon was called for pass interference — but Godwin reeled the ball in with his right hand to give Penn State a 14-13 lead.
Hackenberg's second score was a back-shoulder throw to Hamilton (five catches, 96 yards). Hackenberg took a big hit from defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson and the ball sailed over Nixon's outstretched arm to Hamilton, who had beaten cornerback Jarrett Ross.
On the final score from Hackenberg to Lewis, which proved to be the difference in the game, Lewis high-pointed the ball while in one-on-one coverage with cornerback Sean Davis. Nixon had come up in coverage to guard the tight end, leaving Lewis and Davis alone.
"They had a good plan," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "They basically said that we are going to go high-risk, high-reward. Basically, they said your receivers won't beat us. But we made big plays tonight and number of guys made big plays."
Maryland's secondary is one of the team's most experienced units, but it has been vulnerable at times this season. On Saturday, Penn State's wide receivers simply made catches in big spots when they had to. And it leaves the Terps with a week of practice to try to remedy those issues.
"Defensively, the thing that really stood out was we had guys in position to make plays, and what we've got to do is have a receiver mindset and attack the ball in the air as if you're the receiver," Locksley said Sunday. "Those are all coachable moments for us. We'll get some extra work in playing the deep ball."