COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Five observations from Penn State’s thorough and efficient 59-0 rout of Maryland in its Big Ten opener Friday night, a result that left the Terrapins’ “blackout” audience feeling mighty blue.
Penn State brought 74 players to Maryland Stadium and 66 of them played. Fifty members of the travel squad ranged from true freshmen (12) to redshirt sophomores. Many of them had never played in such a loud environment away from Beaver Stadium, but they handled everything as well as could be expected, although the noise, at least from Maryland fans, died down as the score grew larger. “Obviously a young team and the maturation process is always a challenge,” head coach James Franklin said. “It’s one thing to do it at home and it’s a different to do it on the road. I really felt like the way we practiced in the noise, that our guys were so comfortable that I actually thought the energy in the stadium, they fed off of.”
The bye week gave the Nittany Lions’ starting quarterback, who is notoriously hard on himself, a chance to look at as much tape as he possibly could, “probably more than in a game week,” he said. The study worked – he threw for a school record 287 yards in the first half and finished with a career-high 398. “I was just breaking down every little thing I could. I was breaking down my incompletions, when I threw to the left, when I threw to the right, scrambling. Third down was a big emphasis.” Clifford was on target all night, connecting on his first nine passes, two for touchdowns. And while the Lions continued to have trouble clicking on deep shots, some short passes were able to go for big gains – 58 yards to KJ Hamler, 55 yards to Nick Bowers, 37 yards to Journey Brown.
Franklin said it at his Tuesday press conference – “We’ve got to get (KJ Hamler) more touches. That doesn’t have to be shots down the field. It can be short stuff as well.” Well, it took Hamler just four plays to do just that: third and nine from the Penn State 42, Clifford threw a 10-yard pass and Hamler turned it into a 58-yard touchdown, proof that he is one of the most electrifying players in the country. “Basically I just ran a slant,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting to break a tackle but I did, and the rest is history. In the open field, I think I’m very dangerous and elusive.” Hamler finished with nine touches – six catches, three punt returns – but the limited touches resulted from the lopsided score.
Most people seemed to dwell on the “59” in that final score, but the Nittany Lions’ defense played its most complete game of the season – 10 first downs and 128 yards allowed, 2.2-yard average per play, three turnovers. The unit also got off the field quicker in stopping 11-of-15 third-down conversion attempts by Maryland. Defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos set the tone with two early tackles for losses and backup middle linebacker Ellis Brooks had 2 ½ sacks. Sophomore Jesse Luketa had five tackles, most in relief of starting linebacker Micah Parsons, who was ejected in the first quarter for targeting. “I feel the sky’s the limit for us,” Gross-Matos said.