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Dominant day on the ground boosts Penn State past Maryland

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On a rainy afternoon in Happy Valley, Penn State’s offensive gameplan to run the ball down Maryland’s throats wasn’t a surprise. But what was a surprise was the amount of success the they found. The Nittany Lions’ 372 rushing yards was the most Penn State had accumulated since 2006 and powered James Franklin’s squad to a 38-14 win.

“It’s simple and I’ve said this before, it’s up front,” Franklin said, crediting his offensive line for the team’s success. “We’re maturing and growing up front. We’re more physical up front on the offensive line, we’re sustaining blocks and getting a hat on a hat. When you're able to do that, you’re going to have a successful offense.”

Despite having one of the nation’s best backs in Saquon Barkley along with dual-threat quarterback Trace McSorley, the Lions had struggled mightily to run the ball in their first five games, as they came into Saturday’s game ranked 119th in the nation, averaging just 108.2 rushing yards per contest. On Saturday, they tripled that and then some.

Barkley not only broke past the 100-yard barrier for the first time since week one, but he also eclipsed his previous career-high before the end of the third quarter. Finishing with 202 yards, it was the type of performance Penn State fans have come to expect from Barkley, who came into the season with Heisman potential.

Barkley broke onto the national scene last season thanks in part to his crazy highlights, particularly his hurdles. In the third quarter, he hurdled his way back onto the highlight tape, leaping over Terrapins cornerback Will Likely en route to a 12-yard gain. But after the game, Barkley refused to accept any credit and echoed Franklin’s praises of his offensive line.

“I love those guys to death,” Barkley said. “We can’t go anywhere without them and they just do an unbelievable job every week… Gaia is a tremendous leader on the o-line and the calls he makes put us in the right spot. All those guys, we just really have a trust. I trust them and they me. I trust that they’re going to give me a hole and they trust me that I’m going to make my guy miss.”

Along with the o-line, a large reason for Barkley’s rushing total had to do with the success his quarterback found rushing the ball. While McSorley boasts a 4.50 40-yard dash time and dazzled with a few scrambles last week against Minnesota, he waited until this week to truly prove how effective he could be as a rusher. Operating the read-option play that offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead mastered in his prior job at Fordham, McSorley ran for a career-high 81 yards and chipped in his third rushing touchdown of the season.

“Trace getting the run going and using his feet kept the defense honest,” Barkley said. “We kind of thought that we were able to run the ball against them… and Trace did an unbelievable job of using his feet, keeping drives going and getting first downs.”

Despite tossing a season-low 19 pass attempts, McSorley still managed to notch two passing touchdowns. The second of which was arguably McSorley’s most beautiful deep ball this whole season, a 70-yard bomb to DeAndre Thompkins.

While the Lions have mainly operated as a second-half team all season, Franklin’s squad flipped that script on Saturday and came out of the gates with possibly their most impressive offensive drive all season. Lasting less than three minutes, the Lions went 84 yards down the field in just seven plays to score an opening drive touchdown for the first time this season.

But the fast start wasn’t just for the offense. On defense, Lions linemen Garrett Sickles and Evan Schwan both got to Maryland quarterback Perry Hills for sacks on the Terps first drive of the game. A few drives later, Sickels once again got to Hills and hit him as he threw, forcing a wobbly pass which would be intercepted by Brandon Smith.

While the defense struggled against Maryland’s short game, allowing 170 rushing yards and numerous big screen passes, they still pulled off one of their finest performances in recent weeks. The injury-depleted unit saw big contributions from linebackers Koa Farmer, who recorded five tackles and a strip sack in his first start, and Brandon Smith, who led all players with 14 tackles.

Heading in to the bye week, Penn State now has all the momentum they could’ve asked for after sitting at 2-2 after their blowout loss to Michigan. With No. 2 Ohio State waiting on the other side of the bye, Franklin said this week off couldn’t come at a more perfect time.

“Overall, I’m very happy with the win,” Franklin said. “Great momentum going into the bye week and we need this time off. Some of our injuries aren’t going to heal in a week but some will… I’m really proud of our players and our coaches.”

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