Penn State (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten Conference) escaped Baltimore with a 31-30 victory Saturday before an announced 68,948 at M&T Bank Stadium, avenging a 20-19 loss last year in State College.
For the past two weeks, Maryland players relished the role of the underdog. Their coach had been fired six games into the season. They were on a three-game losing streak, during which every defeat came by at least 21 points. There was a rotating cast of quarterbacks, none of which could seem to put together any semblance of an effective offense. No one was going to give them much of a chance down the stretch.
That mentality was reflected in interim coach Mike Locksley against Penn State on Saturday. The coaching staff was creative in its play-calling. The Terps appeared to be — for the first time in a long time — having fun.
But with an energetic and bipartisan crowd of 68,948 at M&T Bank Stadium watching, Maryland couldn't overcome its own mistakes in a 31-30 loss to Penn State.
"We wanted them to stay loose," Locksley said. "I never felt like our guys tightened up. As a staff, we didn't flinch. We played and stayed aggressive for four quarters. I had no problem with what we did and how our guys played, and we're going to continue to play aggressive."
Maryland put up 466 yards and 30 points on the Big Ten Conference's fourth-best defense. Quarterback Perry Hills turned in another inspired performance with 124 yards a touchdown on the ground and 225 yards and a score through the air. The Terps defense forced three turnovers and knocked around Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
Hills was intercepted three times and lost two fumbles in Penn State territory. The Terps opened the game by driving across the 50 on their first seven possessions and only came away with 13 points. And in a one-point game, it made all the difference.
"We really wanted to win this one, so it's going to be tough to swallow," said running back Brandon Ross, who rushed for 58 yards and a touchdown. "Definitely no moral victories. Frustration, knowing we let one get away. They were trying to give us the game, ever since the first quarter. They were just making mistake after mistake — or we were forcing mistakes — but we didn't capitalize on them."
The Maryland defense clamped down on a Penn State rushing attack that had been the engine of the Nittany Lions offense over the previous few weeks. Running back Saquon Barkley had three 100-yard games entering Saturday, but the Terps (2-5, 0-3 Big Ten) held him to 65 yards and a score on 20 carries and forced him to fumble twice. The Nittany Lions (6-2, 3-1) finished the game with 48 yards rushing on 31 attempts.
The Terps also took advantage of Penn State's porous pass protection, to accumulate four sacks . Hackenberg completed only 13 of 29 passes, but he passed for 315 yards and three touchdowns. The Maryland secondary was unable to lock down wide receivers Chris Godwin (four catches, 135 yards, one touchdown) and DaeSean Hamilton (five catches, 96 yards, one touchdown).
So the Terps trudged into the locker room knowing they'd been so close to locking down a win over the Nittany Lions.
"It was just a dull, dull moment because a lot of guys, we just went out and played our butts off," said defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, who had two sacks. "Unfortunately, the score was what it was, so there's a lot of disappointment."
What was expected to be a defensive battle turned into a seesaw contest down the stretch, with each team countering the other's blows. Penn State took a 17-13 lead into halftime, but the Terps came out in the second half and took the lead back on a 10-yard touchdown run by Ross. Hackenberg hit Hamilton for a 20-yard score before Maryland took the lead back late in the third quarter on Hills' 10-yard pass to wide receiver DeAndre Lane (Catonsville), his first career score.
Again, Hackenberg responded, this time with a 27-yard pass to wide receiver Geno Lewis. Maryland kicker Brad Craddock kicked his third field goal of the game to cut the lead to 31-30 with 10 minutes, 15 seconds remaining in the game.
There was plenty of time for Maryland to put together one last drive for a score, but the Penn State defense held fast. The Terps' final four drives ended in a fumble, an interception, on downs and, finally, an interception.
"The mark of a good team is a team that doesn't beat itself," Locksley said.
In his less than two weeks at the helm, Locksley worked at getting the Terps past both the emotional and physical struggles of the season's first six games. He has installed an offense that plays to Hills' strengths and has been effective against Penn State and Ohio State in consecutive games. But most of all, he got Maryland to a point where it's playing free and loose. He has rejuvenated the Terps for the season's home stretch.
But it wasn't enough against Penn State.
"We were all riled up," Hills said. "We were ready to go. Everyone had a lot of energy, a lot of passion for this game. Just let it slip away."