Maryland field hockey’s backfield was arguably its greatest strength through 15 games this season. The unit frequently stifled opposing offenses, allowing more than three goals in a game just once. 

For the first time this season, it was outplayed. 

In its most influential game of the regular season, Maryland faltered on both sides of the ball and dropped its final Big Ten matchup, losing 5-1 to Penn State in Friday’s road contest.

The Terps’ had a chance to win the Big Ten title outright, a possibility that is now out of their control. If Penn State follows up its win with another against Rutgers next week, Maryland and the Nittany Lions split the regular season title. 

Penn State poured on three goals in the second quarter to secure a dominant three goal-lead. It turned intercepted passes into quality looks at the goal and scored with ease against a Terps defense that couldn’t adjust. 

“Their counterattack was too fast for our backs,” coach Missy Meharg said. “We had a hard time stepping up and playing defense. … They outran us in the backfield at a critical time. I think Maryland’s energy at the beginning … was very high. When we fell off that, they were very dangerous.”

Maryland’s second loss of the season also tarnishes its chances of an undefeated finish in conference play. The Terps have only done so once since they joined the Big Ten eight years ago.

[Maryland field hockey eyes full regular season Big Ten title in Penn State matchup]

Missy Meharg’s squad was outshot 14-7, the first time it has attempted fewer shots than its opponent all season. An offense that has been consistently able to earn penalty corners struggled in that department, too.

The Terps’ 129 penalty corners this season are tied for second most in the country. On Friday, they attempted two.

“When you have a shot, and you have a good shot, I think a lot of the players would say, ‘I should have put it in,’” Meharg said. “We didn’t take advantage of our opportunities.” 

Danielle van Rootselaar scored the game’s first goal in the opening minutes of the first quarter. She found the net on the Terps’ first penalty corner of the game.

The goal was the graduate student’s 11th of the season, overtaking Hope Rose for the team lead. Rose made her first appearance in nearly a month in the loss after missing Maryland’s past five games.

“She’s been working really hard over the last week,” Meharg said. “The doctors and our trainer Cara [Rapoport] are very pleased with where she is.” 

Penn State controlled the game from there, scoring four unanswered goals to put the Terps in the largest deficit they’ve faced all year.

Sophia Gladieux, who led Nittany Lions entering the game in goals with 18, scored her 19th of the season to tie the score. Penn State scored twice more early in the second quarter before Gladieux notched her second score of the game to extend the lead to three.

[Frantic finish clinched Maryland field hockey a share of Big Ten regular season title]

The onslaught forced Missy Meharg to change goaltenders, swapping Paige Kieft for Christina Calandra midway through the second quarter. Calandra hasn’t started a game since Sep. 9, playing in three games since then as a reserve.

“It just seemed like a good time to [switch],” Meharg said. “Christina had a good week, she had a good warm up. I just felt for Paige, she needed a break.” 

The third period featured no shots for Maryland. The Terps entered the fourth quarter with three attempts but added four more in the final frame.

Despite those chances, they remained frozen at one goal.

Maryland was held scoreless after the five-minute mark in the opening quarter. The loss is the Terps’ third consecutive against Penn State, which it hasn’t beaten in nearly 600 days.

“I’ve never been a coach that looked at any certain team as an obstacle,” Meharg said. “Maybe my players do, and maybe that’s something I’ll take responsibility for.”

The fate of the conference now rests on the Nittany Lions’ matchup with Rutgers next week after Maryland squandered its chance to sit atop the conference by itself and gave a bitter rival a chance to share the coveted crown.

“That’s out of our control now, which is unfortunate but it is what it is,” Meharg said.