STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Everything was aligned almost perfectly Saturday for Penn State. The Nittany Lions felt prepared to pick up their first win of the season against Maryland, a team they had outscored, 163-6, in the last three years and was nearly a four-touchdown underdog.
But nothing worked right for the Lions on this unseasonably warm November day. Behind sophomore quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, the fired-up Terrapins scored three touchdowns on their first four possessions to race out to a 21-0 lead and went on to a 35-19 upset of the disorganized host team at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State is off to an 0-3 start for the first time since the 2001 season and is buried in the basement of the Big Ten East, something rather shocking for a team that had aspirations of a conference championship, maybe even a College Football Playoff bid, at the start of the season.
And what’s worse, some players talked after the game about accountability. Wide receiver Jahan Dotson, who caught nine passes for 123 yards and a touchdown, said the team has too many distractions and is “not as one right now.”
“We’re not a good football team,” he said. “We have to just work. We have to have everyone 100 percent bought in. It’s going to start [Sunday] at practice. We’re going to see who really wants it and who really wants to be here. There’s no time for that right now. We’re 0-3. We have to turn the season around. We have to do something different.”
Tight end Pat Freiermuth also mentioned the fact that “our players have to hold each other accountable, and I don’t think that’s happening right now.”
Penn State did not play the first half like a team that was determined to break into the win column. Even head coach James Franklin admitted his players were “not competitive early in the game.”
“They made plays,” he said of Maryland. “They were able to stay on schedule on first and second downs and created a bunch of manageable third-down situations, and were able to do that for the majority of the game. Offensively, we weren’t able to get the running game going. Everything builds off of that. That continues to be an issue for us.”
The Terrapins (2-1), who had gone 14 consecutive quarters without scoring a touchdown against the Nittany Lions, needed just over 2 ½ minutes following the opening kickoff to break that drought. In fact, their early scores came in almost effortless fashion.
Tagovailoa, the younger brother of former Alabama star and Miami Dolphins rookie Tua Tagovailoa, hit freshman Rahim Jarrett twice on the same crossing pattern and Jarrett outran the secondary for touchdown plays of 42 and 62 yards in the first quarter.
Add in a 38-yard run by Jake Funk early in the second, and it was 21-0. It was 28-7 at halftime and 35-7 just over two minutes into the third quarter, when Sean Clifford was sacked and fumbled and Chance Campbell returned it 34 yards for a score.
The Lions dominated the second half, running 55 plays to 21 for Maryland and outgaining the visitors 290-70, but they managed only touchdown passes by Clifford to Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington in the fourth quarter, the last one with 11 seconds to play.
Asked about Dotson’s comment on not everyone buying in, Clifford admitted the veteran players keep talking about it.
“We talk about the extra buy-in, we talk about being better, we talk about what type of football team we are,” he said. “It’s very apparent what type of team we are – we’re an 0-3 poor-performing football team right now. We’ve got to change that. It’s unacceptable to ourselves, to the program, to the coaches, to the fans. We’ve got to figure this out.”
Clifford set a program record with 57 passes, completing 27 of them for 340 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions, but he was sacked seven times.
The Lions' running attack continues to be puzzling. Their running backs managed just 68 yards in 17 carries against a team that had given up an average of 293.5 yards in its first two games. Of Penn State’s 55 second-half plays, Clifford passed or ran on 46 of them.
It figures to be a long week for the Nittany Lions. Freiermuth and the other offensive captains, Clifford and center Michal Menet, talked after the game and will try to come up with some answers for Sunday’s practice.
“We’re all going to take some time to reflect tonight to figure it out,” Freiermuth said. “I have thoughts in my mind, but I’ll keep that to myself and the team. We’re going to have to figure it out.”