Maryland football had easier roads to bowl eligibility than the one it tried to tackle Saturday — entering Beaver Stadium needing to beat No. 12 Penn State to secure its sixth win this season.
An emotional 34-29 victory over then-No. 23 Texas at FedEx Field opened the 2018 campaign, with the memory of former offensive lineman Jordan McNair seeming to galvanize the Terps to a second straight upset. But Maryland faltered at home to Temple, couldn’t move the ball against then-No. 23 Iowa or Michigan State, had four turnovers against Indiana and fell one play short against then-No. 9 Ohio State.
So, it left Maryland one last opportunity to reach six wins, and it came on a cold, rainy day in State College.
After compiling 535 yards last week against the Buckeyes, forcing overtime and losing by one point, the Terps couldn’t muster anything close to that level of effectiveness Saturday. Maryland’s season ended with a 38-3 loss, one that would have required a whole lot more than one play to make a difference.
“So proud of our football team,” interim head coach Matt Canada said, getting choked up and pausing for several seconds. “It stinks that we didn’t win today, and it really stinks the last two games we came up [short], but this is one hell of a season, one hell of a group of kids, and as a staff, we’re really proud of them.”
Canada has been proud all year of the way his team responded and stuck together following McNair’s death from heatstroke suffered at a team workout May 29; how they put aside differing opinions regarding coach DJ Durkin, who was reinstated and fired last month. But there was a caveat when he said it Tuesday at his weekly press conference: “We need to win.”
To do that, Maryland (5-7, 3-6 Big Ten) would need a performance rivaling last week’s near-upset over Ohio State. In that contest, Anthony McFarland gashed the Buckeyes with a slew of long carries, compiling 298 yards and two touchdowns.
But McFarland was a non-factor against the Nittany Lions, rushing six times for 12 yards before heading to the locker room in the third quarter. That left an already thinned-out running back group even thinner.
“We were kind of in a bind,” Canada said. “But we had chances, we just didn’t play well enough.”
The Nittany Lions marched down the field in four plays to open the game, with quarterback Trace McSorley trotting into the end zone for a three-yard score. That concluded a drive sparked by a 34-yard pass from McSorley and a 35-yard run from Miles Sanders, who weaved his way through most of Maryland’s defense.
“It was a setback, and we just had to respond,” wide receiver Taivon Jacobs said. “We didn’t respond how we wanted to.”
Joseph Petrino hit a 26-yard field goal in the first quarter, but the Terps punted on their next five possessions while Penn State (9-3, 6-3) entered halftime with a 17-3 lead. The Nittany Lions again jumped out early in the third quarter, adding a touchdown.
Maryland seemed to have a route back into the game when cornerback RaVon Davis chased down Sanders and punched the ball loose with the third quarter coming to a close. Antwaine Richardson landed on the ball, and quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome led the Terps into the red zone for the second time of the game.
There, Canada opted for another jet sweep, a play call that didn’t prove effective against Penn State. Yetur Gross-Matos didn’t let DJ Turner find the corner, tripping him up for a loss of five yards.
And instead of going for it on 4th-and-7 while trailing by 21 points, Canada called out Petrino. The freshman kicker, who made his first 11 attempts in college, missed wide right, setting up another Nittany Lions touchdown.
Penn State compiled 565 yards and controlled the line of scrimmage. Maryland, who has so often relied on a strong rushing game, managed 74 yards on the ground while its opponent had 310.
After two losses by a combined three points, Maryland looked flat Saturday. A season where off-field storylines so frequently dominated the narrative over on-field displays ticked to a close with Penn State easily dismissing Maryland’s postseason chances.
“To come up short is disappointing,” defensive lineman Mbi Tanyi said.
Going forward, there are question marks everywhere: A head coaching position to fill, seniors to replace and a dwindling recruiting class that was never a strength to begin with.
But Maryland navigated a turbulent season to the brink of bowl eligibility. It was enough to make Canada emotional postgame, reflecting on a season that could have gone so far awry, but instead displayed incredible resolve — even during games like Saturday.
“We didn’t win enough, but they believed,” Canada said. “It didn’t show up today. It sure as hell showed up last week.”