HERSHEY, PA. — The Maryland coaching staff knew it didn't have the same star power as Pennsylvania for the Big 33 Classic, but it didn't see any reason to think it couldn't hang with the Keystone State's finest in the annual all-star game.
And through the early part of Saturday night's matchup at Hersheypark Stadium, the Maryland defense was stout and trailed Pennsylvania by only a touchdown after the opening quarter.
But Pennsylvania's stable of playmakers started finding cracks in the Maryland defense, and soon those cracks turned into gashes as Pennsylvania pulled away for a decisive 26-14 victory.
"At the end of the day, we're just two teams putting on pads, so the paper was just paper," Oakland Mills wide receiver Tre Hopkins (Albany) said. "Getting on the field was actually a great experience. I got to go against some great corners and stuff. Around my county, it wasn't that competitive. But tonight I got a good feel for what competition's really like."
Penn State-bound Woodland Hills running back Miles Sanders, who's rated as a five-star recruit and the No. 1 running back in the nation by 247sports.com dazzled the fans in his home state with seven carries for 73 yards and two touchdowns and added a 21-yard touchdown catch on his way to earning Most Valuable Player honors.
Meanwhile, a Pennsylvania defense that boasted McKeesport's Khaleke Hudson (Michigan) and Central Catholic's Damar Hamlin (Pittsburgh) in the secondary made life miserable for Maryland's quarterbacks, Northwest's Mark Pierce and Sherwood's Shawn Bliss (West Virginia Wesleyan). The Maryland signal-callers were a combined 8 of 20 for 240 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
Since Maryland returned to the Big 33 Classic in 2013, it has dropped three of four meetings, with the lone victory coming in 2014, and Pennsylvania improved to 10-2 in the series.
Pennsylvania's squad boasted 14 players who signed with Power Five squads, including seven future Pittsburgh players. By contrast, Dunbar's Dae'lun Darien and Bullis' Cameron Brown, who will both attend Penn State, were the lone Power Five signees on Maryland's roster. Brown earned Most Valuable Player honors for Maryland and finished with 21 yards receiving.
That talent differential showed on the field.
Pennsylvania raced out to a 26-0 lead after three quarters behind Sanders and its defense, but Maryland chipped away before it finally broke through. With 5 minutes, 53 seconds left in the game, Bliss hit Darien for a 33-yard diving touchdown catch to cut the lead to 26-7.
"I was happy to finally get the ball, to finally get an attempt," Darien said. "I was open a lot during the game. I didn't complain, but got the ball, made the most of it."
With 1:43 remaining, Northwest defensive back Martin Foray Jr. (Saint Francis University) jumped a route and took his interception 62 yards the other way to bring the Maryland squad to within two touchdowns.
"It was nice to get on the scoreboard and stuff," Eastern Tech linebacker Brandon Hlavach (Shepherd) said. "I think that if we would have started out the way we finished, it would have been a completely different game."
The Pennsylvania defense held Maryland to 41 yards rushing and didn't let the offense establish any sort of rhythm. Old Mill running back Pete Boone had a team-high 24 yards rushing, and Owings Mills running back Michael Johnson (West Virginia State) had a team-high 54 yards receiving. Darien had 40 yards.
And when Pennsylvania had the ball on offense, the unit was efficient. Syracuse-bound running back Jo-El Shaw, who shared a backfield at Woodland Hills with Shaw, finished with 14 carries for 80 yards and a touchdown. Through the air, Clairton wide receiver Aaron Mathews (Pittsburgh) had 89 yards from Parkland's Devante Cross (Virginia) and Upper Dublin's Ryan Stover (Towson), who were 9 of 15 for 128 yards.
While the result wasn't what the Maryland players wanted entering the warm evening in Hershey, it provided a glimpse for some of them of who they'll be lining up against in college. Not all of them will be playing in the Big Ten Conference or the ACC, but they've saw the players who will compete among the nation's best.
"This game actually boosted a little bit of my confidence because I was doing pretty good on my route running and stuff against good defenders," Hopkins said. "This game just kind of boosted my confidence and gave me a stick of where I am and what I have to work on."
Said Hlavach: "It was a great honor to play in this game to close out my final high school football game and get to move on to college and play at the next level."