Big Passing Plays Quell Maryland’s High-Risk Defensive Effort

Maryland brought it, and Penn State’s passing game served it right back.

As James Franklin saw it, the Terps tried to fool the Nittany Lions by playing “high-risk, high-reward.” That meant employing a man-to-man defense with no safeties to help out, and bringing that extra defender into the box to rush the quarterback.

“They said your receivers won’t beat us,” said Franklin after the game. “But we made big plays tonight.”

Penn State’s offensive production through its first seven games came in small chunks, and an aggravating stubbornness to call plays downfield. Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium was a different story, as explosive plays and deep passes helped the Nittany Lions earn bowl eligibility.

“I said we were going to be more aggressive, and we have been,” said Franklin.

For Chris Godwin, whose four receptions for 135 yards paced a steady Lions’ receiving corps, it was the next chapter in a successful breakout year. The sophomore from Delaware broke the 100-yard mark for the second time this season, and has at least four grabs in every game but one.

“I think they came out and challenged us early on,” he said, acknowledging Maryland’s aggressive defensive scheme. “But it’s up to us to challenge them in one-on-one coverage and make big plays.”

Godwin certainly did. His 37-yard touchdown reception with three minutes remaining in the first half gave Penn State a 14-13 lead. It capped a two-play, 75-yard drive that took only 42 seconds off the clock, and proved the most salient example of the Lions’ big play ability. Godwin’s catch on the touchdown was even more impressive because it came with a defender draped across his body. In single coverage, Godwin was pulled down while making the one-handed catch, drawing a defensive pass inference call in the process.

“When the ball is in the air, it’s in our mindset that’s its our ball,” he said. “Whether it’s a fifty-fifty catch or not, it’s our ball.”

Nonchalantly, Godwin described the remarkable play: “The defensive back had my arm, so it was a one-handed catch. It was a bit more challenging.”

“I used one hand,” he said with a smirk. “It was pretty cool.”

That’s the type of mindset James Franklin understands: A former receivers coach, Franklin said that his deep pool of competent receives are always hungry, whether they make zero catches or 40 in a game.

“The opportunities that they get, they’re taking advantage of it,” he said.

And if the big play mentality is one that’s not new to Franklin, it’s one that quarterback Christian Hackenberg clearly appreciates.

“They’ve done a fantastic job each week of just getting better and better and really taking practice and using that as a tool for Saturdays,” he said to a scrum of media members surrounding him after the game. “For us, that’s just breeding confidence in that room.”

Hackenberg passed the ball 29 times Saturday, and just 13 were caught. But his 315 yards (and three touchdowns) resulted in a 24-yard per completion average. In doing so, he became Penn State’s all-time leader in passing yards and completions, and tied the all-time record for career passing attempts.

But he was also sacked three times, and prompted one Maryland media member to declare the coaching staff’s use of the hampered Hackenberg as “negligent homicide.”

Well it’s actually just Penn State football, and Hackenberg had the last word Saturday night.

“They came out and threw the kitchen sink at us and we were able to react and make plays and do what we needed to do to get the job done.”

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Ben Berkman

State College, PA

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