UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Fresh off a restful Thanksgiving holiday, No. 10 Penn State (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten) travels to Maryland (4-7, 2-6 Big Ten) to close out the regular season Saturday.
Although meeting for the fourth consecutive time as members of the Big Ten conference, the Nittany Lions will make their first trip to Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium since 1993.
Penn State enters Saturday's matchup with back-to-back wins at home, while also poised to potentially lock up a second consecutive 10-win season for the first time since 2008-09. Looking at Maryland, the Terrapins haven't won a game in the month of November, with losses in the last three outings, including a 17-7 road loss at Michigan State last weekend.
Among the many key pieces of Penn State's back-to-back shining seasons, quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley have been nothing short of a dynamic duo, recently becoming the first Nittany Lions to rush for 10 or more touchdowns in a season since Evan Royster and Daryll Clark (2008), also occurring for just the third time in program history.
As national awards are slimming down once bountiful watch lists to a selection of semifinalists and finalists, both McSorley and Barkley are among the few. This week alone, Barkley was named a finalist for the Paul Hornung, Maxwell and Doak Walker awards, while McSorley was previously selected as a finalist for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award earlier this month.
Come Saturday, the duo will lead the 2017 Nittany Lions on to the field for their first regular season finale away from home since 2015. Among all the expectations though, for Penn State head coach James Franklin and staff, it's about emerging from the weekend 1-0, even with bowl selections emerging on the horizon.
"Obviously we want to continue growing as the season goes on and continue to get better in really every area, but I've been pleased," Franklin said. "This is always an interesting week because it's Thanksgiving break and the student are out so the guys get a little extra sleep. I just want to see us getting better every single week in really every area from a fundamental standpoint, from a scheme standpoint, from an assignment standpoint."
What To Watch For -
1. It was weeks ago when Franklin issued a challenge for his team to be more physical across the board. Come Saturday against Nebraska, the Nittany Lion offensive line made the most of that challenge, paving the way for a 263-yard Penn State rushing performance against the Huskers, something Franklin was quick to point out as a positive this week.
Ahead of the final regular season outing of the season though, Penn State's offensive line is looking to maintain the physicality for the long haul.
"That's something we've always tried to instill within us but now that the season's kind of wrapping up we want to make it a point to make sure that we have that physical mentality at all times and not just pick and choose when we want to use it," redshirt junior Chasz Wright said. "It's actually more of a mentality instilled in us as an offensive line."
2. Barkley earned his sixth Big Ten Player of the Week award following a standout performance against Nebraska, rushing for 158 yards and scoring three touchdowns. With 3,629 career rushing yards, Barkley needs just 303 yards to match Royster for first place on the Nittany Lion all-time list. He already broke a nearly 50-year-old record last weekend registering his 39th career rushing touchdown to take the top spot in the Penn State record book.
3. Wide receiver Juwan Johnson has steadily emerged as one of McSorley's top targets, entering Saturday's outing with multiple receptions in each of the last nine games. Most recently, Johnson recorded his first 100-yard receiving game with a career-high 105 yards against Nebraska.
"Seeing that confidence from someone in-game, it's different," McSorley said. "When they start getting that feeling, that swagger, when you saw that out of Juwan on Saturday, it was awesome. As a quarterback, when you've got a receiver feeling like that, you feel like you can put the ball in his area, give him a chance and he's going to come down with it."
What To Watch For -
1. Franklin identified Maryland running backs Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison III as challenges for the Nittany Lions early this week.
"Both are similar, kind of low center of gravity, really good balance, break a lot of tackles," Franklin said.
Johnson recently reached the 2,000 career rushing yards milestone, having recorded a team-high 805 rushing yards this year with five touchdowns. Harrison is just behind him with 562 rushing yards on 130 carries with three touchdowns, having rushed for at least 50 yards in each of the last five consecutive games.
2. Franklin compared junior wide receiver DJ Moore to former Nittany Lion and current Tampa Bay Buccaneer Chris Godwin, mentioning his power, strength and explosive play-making ability. Approaching the 1,000-receiving yard mark this year, Moore has pulled in catches from four different quarterbacks this year, also leading the conference with at least one reception in 32 consecutive games.
3. Franklin also noted the Maryland defense presents challenges with different Terps at each level. Senior linebacker Jermaine Carter is among the group of individuals the Nittany Lions will spend time prepping for this week. Guiding an experienced and athletic unit, Carter is also among the 19 seniors Maryland will honor on its annual senior day Saturday. Leading the team with 79 tackles and four forced fumbles he's also on track to lead the Terps in tackles for the third consecutive season. Forcing his fourth fumble of the season last week at Michigan State, the mark ranks first in the Big Ten and fourth in FBS.
The Final Word -
Come Saturday, 13 Nittany Lions will return to their home state to close out the 2017 regular season. Among those Nittany Lions, is senior Marcus Allen who will suit up in the blue and white for the final time in a non-postseason outing.
Penn State has been dominant in both neighborly and boarder battle outings, currently 3-0 this year against teams within a 250-mile drive of Happy Valley. Regardless of proximity though, for Allen, there's something fitting about closing out the regular season in his home state.
"Just for me to play my last game in the regular season, in my hometown, that's pretty awesome," Allen said. "That's fun. It's going to be, like a backyard football game, as far as me knowing a lot of guys that's on the team. We talk back and forth, talking our little stuff."