Lions left to wonder, ‘what if?’
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — A funny thing happened late in the first quarter Saturday afternoon with Penn State already up two touchdowns on struggling Maryland in what turned out to be a laugher.
The classic Journey rock anthem “Don’t Stop Believin'” was played throughout the stadium, in an attempt to try and keep Terps fans inspired. That sort of thing occurs during many games when the home team is trailing, but having to play the song in the first quarter showed a comical level of desperation by the entertainment crew at Maryland Stadium.
There also was an ironic level of humor to it, since it appeared that Penn State fans made up more than half of the crowd of 49,680.
Those fans never had any reason to stop believin’ as the No. 10 Nittany Lions destroyed the Terps, 66-3, for their most points since the 2008 season opener against Coastal Carolina (66-10).
“I felt like we matched up pretty well against Maryland on offense and defense,” PSU coach James Franklin, summarizing the obvious in a total mismatch between two programs going in opposite directions, said after the victory.
Penn State finished the regular season 10-2 for the second straight year and should be heading to a high-profile bowl game against an outstanding opponent.
Still, some players were asked afterward about the dynamic of being happy about going 10-2 versus the “what might have been” scenario since the two losses were by a combined four points in games the Lions had a chance to win.
“It’s 10-2, but it’s almost a bittersweet 10-2 because you know it could have been better, and we wish it had been,” quarterback Trace McSorley said.
“But unfortunately, we weren’t able to get it done in a couple games this year, but we’re going to be happy with being 10-2. There’s not too many back-to-back 10-2 seasons. That’s something to be proud of. So we’re going to be proud if it, we’re going to celebrate it, we’re going to enjoy it.”
McSorley had a terrific day, completing 22 of 33 passes for 237 yards and two TD passes, plus another scoring run.
The Lions (7-2 Big Ten) scored a TD on the game’s opening possession, then on three straight drives later in the half, and led 31-0 at intermission.
Penn State scored again on its first series of the second half, recovered a fumble on the onside kick and reached the end zone yet again for a 45-0 lead with 7:12 left in the third quarter.
It was blowout city, so backup quarterback Tommy Stevens entered the game on the next series and played the rest of the way. Stevens wound up having a monster day, rushing for 113 yards and three TDs on 12 carries, plus he threw for another score.
Stevens’ first touchdown of the day actually capped the Lions’ opening possession, when he came in on first down at the Terps’ 21. He took a handoff from McSorley, faked a reverse handoff to Saquon Barkley, then broke loose around the right side for a touchdown.
“Tommy Stevens is awesome. … He’s fantastic, he’s awesome, he makes plays, he’s a special player,” Barkley said. “We came in together in recruiting class, so it’s a joy for me to see him make plays and get in the end zone.
“He’s a quarterback, but he runs like he’s a running back,” Barkley added. “He’s a big body, and he’s capable of making you miss with speed, power. He can do it all, he can catch the ball. Never surprised when Tommy Stevens makes a play. Every time he gets on the field, you kind of expect him to make that play. … I’m so proud of that guy.”
Stevens has been used a good bit in scoring packages in recent weeks, and Saturday he got the most playing time of his career at quarterback. He certainly took advantage of the opportunity.
“I enjoy having an impact an impact on the game, I enjoy helping my teammates out,” Stevens said. “Obviously I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t enjoy success.”
Penn State has enjoyed decades of success against Maryland, improving to 38-2-1 with Saturday’s victory. It’s often brought up about whether this series counts as a rivalry, but the one-sided nature of it would indicate no.
A 66-3 win would indicate there’s no chance this is a rivalry. And with the Terps (4-8, 2-7) having such a dismal season, the matchups in coming years wouldn’t seem to have much appeal, either.
Franklin put an interesting spin on it.
“I don’t think rivalries are something created by people sitting in an office,” he said. “Rivalries are things that have been established for a long time; no one needs to tell you.
“People bring up Pitt,” the coach added. “I get that one. It’s regional, it’s in our state, we played for a long time, there’s been a gap. … It just seems like since we’ve been here people have been pounding down our throat what games (could be rivalries).”
Barkley finished with 77 yards rushing and two TDs on 16 carries in what was almost certainly the final regular-season game of the standout junior’s college career. He has said he plans to play in PSU’s bowl game.
The Lions might have been heading to the College Football Playoff if they had just one loss, but things didn’t work out that way.
“Looking back on those (two losses), there’s plays you want to have back,” McSorley said. “The losses are so close — two losses by a total of four points.
“The learning experience is you don’t get that opportunity to go back and fix it, so you need to treat every play like it’s gold during the game. You never know which one’s going to be the difference. … You have to treat each play like this play right here is going to win this game.”