A year ago, Penn State and Maryland closed out the regular season in College Park with a 66-3 victory by the No. 10 Nittany Lions.
A lot has changed for the Terps since.
A player — redshirt offensive lineman Jordan McNair — died from heatstroke.
A coach — DJ Durkin — was fired without coaching a single game in his third season.
A team — the Terps — is coming off a 52-51 overtime loss at home last week to No. 10 Ohio State.
As much as McNair’s death in mid-June and Durkin’s termination Oct. 31 after being placed on administrative leave in mid-August have had great impact on the 2018 season, the heartbreaking defeat to the Buckeyes might have more of an impact in Happy Valley.
“The point I would say that everybody should be proud of who supports this program is these players, and that these players weren’t satisfied with being close,” interim coach and offensive coordinator Matt Canada said Tuesday. “They wanted to win the game.There’s nothing to take from it other than we didn’t win the football game.
“We had chances. Not just one chance — we had a lot of chances to make one more play, and I think they know that. I think they all own that — from the offense, to defense, to special teams. Everybody looks at the key plays and thinks about that one play. I do feel good about where we are sticking together. We’ve lost two games, like I said, by three total points. We’ve got to get over the hump and win.”
Here are five things to look for in Maryland’s 3:30 p.m. game Saturday at No. 12 Penn State.
1. Can Anthony McFarland Jr. be slowed down?
After rushing for 298 yards, including touchdown runs of 81 and 75 yards on his first three carries last week against Ohio State, the redshirt freshman running back will be looking for a third straight game with at least 200 yards.
It could be a good matchup for Maryland (5-6, 3-5 Big Ten), since the Nittany Lions rank 10th against the run in the Big Ten. Penn State has surrendered at least 100 yards to an opposing running back in three straight games and four of the past five.
If McFarland can get some help as he did at times last week against the Buckeyes — especially when he left the game briefly with what looked like a shoulder injury — he could continue what he started two weeks ago with a 210-yard game at Indiana.
2. Tyrrell Pigrome has to limit his mental mistakes for Maryland to pull off the upset.
Two years ago as a true freshman, Pigrome came in for an injured Perry Hill at Penn State and immediately rushed for a 7-yard touchdown to cut an early deficit to 17-14. It proved to be Maryland’s last offensive highlight that day in a 38-14 defeat.
Pigrome made his first start the following week in a loss to Minnesota at Maryland Stadium. He threw for one touchdown and two interceptions, including a pick-six, in a 31-10 loss to the Gophers.
His second start was in last year’s season opener, when he overcame an early pick-six at Texas and led the Terps to a big lead before suffering a season-ending torn ACL in the second half of a 51-41 win over the then-No. 23 Longhorns.
Last week was Pigrome’s third start, and while he made some incredible throws late in the game to help the Terps keep pace with the Buckeyes, he took some bad sacks and missed a wide-open Jeshaun Jones in the end zone for a winning 2-point conversion in overtime.
3. Is the third time a charm when it comes to winning a close game?
After Maryland again beat then-No. 23 Texas, 34-29, in this year’s season opener at FedEx Field — surviving the Longhorns scoring 22 straight points in one stretch to take a 29-24 lead — the season was a string of blowout wins and losses.
That ended two weeks ago in Indiana, where Pigrome led the Terps back from a 21-6 deficit in the second quarter and 31-15 in the third quarter after starting quarterback Kasim Hill tore an ACL for the second straight year.
Pigrome’s 15-yard touchdown pass to Jones with a little under five minutes left put the Terps briefly in the lead, before a tired defense and an unfortunate fumble by Pigrome (he had his facemask grabbed or brushed right before) led to a 34-32 loss.
Then came last week, when the Terps couldn’t take advantage of McFarland’s performance early and some big plays by Pigrome and his young receivers to beat a top-10 team to become bowl-eligible.
If Maryland can keep it close — and given the Terps went from losing 62-14 at No. 10 Ohio State last year to losing by one this year, anything’s possible — maybe the football gods will finally smile on Canada and his players.
4. Will more than 100,000 fans show up for senior day — and possibly James Franklin’s last home game?
Penn State fans seem to have forgotten how Franklin — with the help of running back Saquon Barkley and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead — turned the program around after Bill O’Brien kept the team remarkably competitive in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
They seem to have forgotten how the Nittany Lions had trouble competing with Ohio State, Michigan and even Michigan State in the Big Ten East in Joe Paterno’s final years, and how there were calls for the legendary JoePa to retire before he was forced out by the scandal.
Franklin has done his best trying to deflect any questions about him leaving, which is always the first sign that a coach has one foot — or even two — out the door. Given that Franklin has always wanted to get back to the NFL someday as a head coach, it seems inevitable he will leave after Trace McSorley is finished.
Is this Franklin’s farewell game in State College?
5. If the Maryland players want Canada to remain, a win in Happy Valley will do it.
As close as the Terps came to securing bowl eligibility last weekend in College Park, their 46-year-old interim coach and offensive coordinator was just as close to all but locking up the full-time gig at Maryland.
Even in defeat, Canada scored huge points with his players and the rapidly evaporating fan base by going for two in overtime and then handling what had to be one of the toughest defeats of his career with poise and perspective.
As much as a win over the Buckeyes would have been a huge deal nationally, a win over Maryland’s own “Team Up North” would resonate even more given the one-sided history of the matchup. (True rivalries are not 38-2-1 in favor of one team.)
Given that Durkin’s last game was a 63-point defeat to the Nittany Lions, even a loss as close and exhilarating as last week’s overtime crusher to Ohio State might be enough for Canada and athletic director Damon Evans to agree on a deal.