Maryland’s defense had one of its best performances up front all season. Nothing else would have given the Terrapins the chance to compete with Penn State, a regional rival and former Top 10 team on a three-game skid.
But Nittany Lions receiver Jahan Dotson played the role of Marvel Comics character Thanos in front of the largest Maryland Stadium crowd of the season: He was inevitable.
“He‘s a big time player, and he made plays that were available to him,” Maryland coach Mike Locksley said.
The senior set a Penn State record with 242 receiving yards and caught all three Nittany Lion offensive touchdowns, leaving defenders in his wake as Penn State beat Maryland, 31-14, Saturday in College Park.
Maryland’s defense deserves the lion’s share of the credit for keeping the game close. The unit forced four three-and-outs, had three sacks and held the Nittany Lions to under 25 yards on six drives.
“Those last final minutes, the defense gave us a chance,” Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa said. “They gave us a lot of opportunities.”
Mistakes, however, especially in the second half of a contest that was within one score for most of the day, did the Terrapins in.
Tagovailoa finished 41-of-57 with 371 yards and a touchdown. But his biggest mistake — an 87-yard pick six by Penn State safety Ji’Ayir Brown with under three minutes remaining in the game — ended any chance at a comeback.
“He read my eyes, and I threw it to the under-cross [route],” Tagovailoa said. “That’s just my fault, probably trying to do too much.”
Senior tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo had a career day — 12 catches for 85 yards — and sophomore Rakim Jarrett had six receptions for 70 yards. Maryland’s running game struggled again, putting up only 48 yards on 27 attempts.
“It felt like we had plenty of opportunities to win,” Locksley said. “It’s still about more of what we do than what our opponents do. The good news is it’s correctable.”
Maryland’s defense, maligned for most of the season, came to play from the outset. The Terrapins forced back-to-back three-and-outs on Penn State’s first two drives and held the Nittany Lions to a combined -11 yards.
The dam finally broke for Penn State over the coverage of safety Nick Cross. The junior was beat for two straight completions: 30 yards by KeAndre Lambert-Smith across the middle of the field, then by a pretty double move by Dotson for 38 yards and Penn State’s first touchdown.
The Nittany Lions switched it up with heavy doses of Noah Cain on their next drive. The junior took four handoffs and caught two passes for 39 yards, but Penn State failed on a fourth-and-one try, and Maryland took over on its own 33.
After throwing for a career-high in passing yards last week against Indiana, Tagovailoa and the Maryland offense couldn’t find any big plays to get things going in the first half. The Terrapins punted on their first five drives of the game before putting the offensive pieces together.
With under three minutes to go in the first half, it initially looked like some of Maryland’s other drives when Okonkwo dropped Tagovailoa’s first pass. But quarterback trusted his receiver, and Okonkwo caught the next pass for 11 yards and a first down.
Tagovailoa rattled off four straight completions after that for Maryland’s first red-zone trip since its first drive. A defensive pass interference call on Keaton Ellis put the Terrpins at the two, and Challen Faamatau dove ahead on the next play for a two-yard touchdown. Joseph Petrino missed the extra point, and Maryland trailed 7-6 at the half.
To put a point on Maryland’s offensive struggles in the first half: Faamatau’s touchdown run accounted for two-thirds of the Terrapins’ first-half rushing yards.
Tagovailoa started to pick up where he left off to begin the second half. He moved Maryland to the PSU 36 when on a first-down incompletion, he was shoved by defensive tackle Fred Hansard and fell down on the Nittany Lions’ sideline as he went out of bounds.
That seemed to stun the quarterback, with Tagovailoa post-game describing his head as “buzzing” after hitting the ground. He left for one play, and Maryland’s drive ended two plays later with a punt.
“Our guys upstairs thought it was a play that probably should be penalized,” Locksley said, referring to his coaching staff in the press box.
Penn State then showed its backfield depth and versatility with Cain getting a rest in favor of Keyvone Lee. He saw the ball six times and racked up 44 yards on a 14-play, 95-yard drive. Dotson caught his second touchdown, a leaping 21-yard grab, to make PSU’s lead 14-6.
Tagovailoa again got Maryland on the move thanks to three straight catches by Jarrett. But just as Maryland got inside the Penn State red zone for the third time, Tagovailoa couldn’t handle a high snap and fumbled at the 10.
“We just continue to make mistakes at the most inopportune times,” Locksley said. “A lot of this is fundamental and technical.”
That didn’t phase Tagovailoa, as Maryland marched downfield with determination as the fourth quarter came around. On the first play of the quarter, he found another tight end, Corey Dyches, unguarded with a diving catch on the left side of the end zone for Maryland’s second touchdown. Okonkwo streaked across the goal line on a play-action and tossed it to complete a two-point conversion and tie the game at 14.
As he did all afternoon and evening, though, Dotson became inevitable. Just after senior Greg Rose’s second sack, Clifford found Dotson streaking across the block M logo at midfield, open yet again. No one touched him as he raced 86 yards for his third touchdown and a 21-14 Nittany Lion lead.
Penn State would add a field goal with under seven minutes to go, and the Brown interception and score finished the Terrapins.
“Guys will continue to work, continue to correct this stuff,” Locksley said. “We’ll get a good week of work in and find a way to get that sixth win.”