Penn State's offense has scuffled through its first six games of the season. In the Big Ten Conference, the Nittany Lions rank 12th in scoring offense, 13th in total offense, ninth in rushing offense and 12th in passing offense. It hasn't been pretty in State College, Pa., and in the games in which Penn State has been able to pull away from its opponent, the defense has deserved a decent portion of the credit.
But that's not to say there aren't any talented pieces in Penn State's offense. Most of that focus falls on quarterback Christian Hackenberg and running back Saquon Barkley, two important playmakers in the Nittany Lions offense.
Hackenberg has gone from possible top-five pick in next April's NFL draft to an enigmatic and inconsistent presence in the Penn State backfield. In last week's loss at No. 1 Ohio State, Hackenberg attempted a career-low 13 passes. On the season, he has completed 94 of 177 passes (53.1 percent) for 1,206 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions.
"He's very talented, has a strong arm, can make all the throws," Terps defensive coordinator Keith Dudzinski said. "The thing you've got to do is you've got to get him out of his comfort zone a little bit. You can't let him just sit there in the pocket and read the defense and let him have his way with you."
Hackenberg has been sacked 24 times this season, good for the second-most in the Football Bowl Subdivision and the most among Power Five quarterbacks. So the Terps know that generating a pass rush from defensive ends Yannick Ngakoue (seven sacks) and Jesse Aniebonam (two sacks) and defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson (4 1/2 sacks) will be important to the defense's locking down the passing game.
In last season's 20-19 Maryland win, Hackenberg was 18-for-42 for 177 yards, one touchdown and one interception. The Terps also sacked him five times and were able to get consistent pressure to not allow him to settle in the pocket and find all of his options.
"The big thing with Hackenberg is he can make all the throws," Maryland interim coach Mike Locksley said. "He's a big strong prototypical pro-style quarterback. Really strong arm. He's able to make every throw in the passing game. The big thing with him, he's pretty accurate as well. For us, we've got to do a good job of getting him off his spot. He's one of those guys that if you allow him to sit back there, he'll pick you apart."
The other key cog in Penn State's offense is a relatively new face on the college football scene. Barkley is a 5-foot-11, 222-pound freshman running back from Coplay, Pa., who has been playing beyond his years early in his career. Though he has battled injuries over the past few weeks, when he's been healthy, Barkley has been one of the most dangerous running backs in the conference.
In his three full games this season — he missed 2 1/2 games because of injury and received just one carry in the season opener — Barkley has rushed for 504 yards on 59 carries, for an average of 8.5 yards per carry, to go with three touchdowns. Against a stout Ohio State front a week ago, he rushed 26 times for 194 yards.
"I think he's got really good vision, good burst," Dudzinski said. "He's strong. He can make good cuts in the hole. ... He's a good back. In the Big Ten, you're going to face good backs week in and week out. I don't want to compare anybody to anybody, but I think he's a very good running back with great speed and great power."
It's the second straight game Maryland will face a dangerous running back. In their 49-28 loss at No. 1 Ohio State two weeks ago, the Terps faced Buckeyes star Ezekiel Elliott, who was coming off of a 274-yard performance against Indiana the week before. The Maryland defense, though, was able to limit him to 106 yards by swarming to the ball and gang tackling him, driving the running back into the ground.
Maryland will have to use a similar strategy in Saturday's matchup in Baltimore in order to contain Barkley, who is joined by Akeel Lynch (5.2 yards per carry in five games) in the backfield.
"He's a guy you can't just arm tackle," Dudzinski said. "You're going to have to get up in there and get your shoulder on him and get the rest of the guys to rally. He can make you miss and then he can hit the home run as well."