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Maryland 35, Penn State 19: Observations on a beautiful day of some ugly football played by the Nittany Lions

The Nittany Lions fell into an early 21-0 hole and were playing catch-up the rest of the day. They ran 55 plays in the second half but scored only two touchdowns in dropping to 0-3.

Penn State defensive tackle Antonio Shelton (55) tackles Maryland wide receiver Rakim Jarrett (5) in the first quarter.
Penn State defensive tackle Antonio Shelton (55) tackles Maryland wide receiver Rakim Jarrett (5) in the first quarter.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

Penn State played poorly on offense and worse on defense in falling into an early 21-0 hole Saturday against Maryland, and the Nittany Lions fell, 35-19, to the Terrapins to drop to 0-3 on what quickly has become a forgettable 2020 season.

Here’s a look at some of the events of a gorgeous November day:

What just happened?

You really have to dig back into the archives to find a performance when Penn State looked as helpless as it did Saturday against a team that it was overwhelmingly favored to beat. Some folks mentioned a 24-6 loss to Toledo at Beaver Stadium in 2000, but the more interesting one was Temple’s 27-10 win in 2015 at Lincoln Financial Field, a game in which quarterback Christian Hackenberg was sacked 10 times. On Saturday, the Terrapins, who were 27½-point underdogs and had been outscored the last three years by Penn State, 163-6, had their way with the sluggish Nittany Lions on both sides of the ball in defeating them for only the third time in 44 games (40-3-1). The Lions needed a spark from someone – anyone – to reverse what was an early 21-0 deficit, but it didn’t happen. With no running game to help him once again, quarterback Sean Clifford threw a program record 57 passes, completing 27 for 340 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions.

What’s with Clifford?

Penn State fans were looking forward to seeing Clifford take another step up at quarterback, especially after getting to work with new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca in what was admittedly a short offseason and preseason. But Clifford has been inconsistent, and that trait surfaced against Saturday when he started the first half 2-of-8 and ended it 0-of-7. He did look sharp going 4-of-5 for 55 yards on the Lions' only TD drive, which ended with a 20-yard scoring pass to Jahan Dotson. Clifford passed 37 times in the second half, earning two more TDs on throws of 23 yards and 1 yard to freshman Parker Washington, but it was mainly cosmetic.

Nowhere to run

Maryland entered the game toward the bottom of the FBS standings in rushing defense, allowing an average of 293.5 yards per game in its first two contests. But Penn State chose not to test the Terrapins, at least not with their running backs. Of the Lions' 18 rushes in the first half, eight were by Clifford, including two sacks and a pair of scrambles. The Terrapins took advantage by getting a good rush on Clifford, and their secondary played well enough especially on a disproportionate number of long passes by Clifford that went incomplete. With Journey Brown and Noah Cain sidelined, the Nittany Lions haven’t found any consistency rushing from starter Devyn Ford and freshmen Keyvonte Lee and Caziah Holmes. The running backs carried only 17 times Saturday for 68 yards.

Secondary overmatched

Give Terrapins quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa credit for his arm, his accuracy and his footwork, but he has some pretty good skill players around him. One is freshman wide receiver Rakim Jarrett, who ran pretty much the same crossing pattern twice, caught the pass, and outran the Penn State secondary on touchdown plays of 42 and 62 yards. Tagovailoa’s third TD pass of the first half came when he found Dontay Demus in the end zone more than 10 yards behind Lions cornerback Joey Porter Jr. Tagovailoa finished 18-of-26 for 282 yards. Jarrett caught five passes for 144 yards.

Where Penn State goes from here

Indiana has proven it’s a good team. Ohio State is the same Ohio State of the last many years. But Maryland? This was the game that was supposed to get the Nittany Lions back in the win column and ready to make a run at perhaps a New Year’s Six bowl. But at 0-3 – their worst start since going 0-4 in 2001 – they must do a lot of soul searching. Head coach James Franklin has talked after each of the first two games about his team “having a lot of things to clean up,” but this game showed they have a lot more than even Franklin thinks. The offense has been too inconsistent, and the usually reliable defense gave up more than 30 points for the third straight game. A long trip to Nebraska awaits next week, and it will be interesting to see how Penn State approaches it, and whether Franklin makes any changes.