HEISER: Penn State-Maryland game a rivalry in making

Steve Heiser
  • Penn State and Maryland have played 39 times. PSU leads the series, 36-2-1.
  • The last two PSU-Maryland games have each been decided by one point.
  • Maryland beat PSU, 20-19, in 2014. PSU beat Maryland in 2015, 31-30.

For the better part of a generation, Penn State fans have longed for a true football rival.

Since the bitter Penn State-Pitt breakup in the early 1990s, the Nittany Lions have lacked that one showdown on the schedule each season that simply must be won.

Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg is sacked by Maryland linebacker Jesse Aniebonam during the 2014 game between the Nittany Lions and the Terrapins. The annual Penn State-Maryland game has the chance to develop into a real rivalry for both teams.

Yes, Penn State and Pitt still play in fits and bursts, but a true rivalry must be played each and every year.

Rivals can't go a decade or more without meeting on the field. Rivals can't play in different conferences. Rivals must be geographic neighbors and recruiting adversaries. Rivals must have a long, storied and competitive history. Rivals should preferably meet during the final week of the regular season. And rivals should have a relationship best described as bitter. It makes it much more fun.

Land Grant silliness: When PSU joined the Big Ten, a rivalry, of sorts, was forced on Nittany Nation against Michigan State. There was even a bogus prize initiated — the much-maligned Land Grant Trophy. The unwieldy award might  be the most unsightly of college football's many rivalry trophies.

Any idea that the PSU-MSU series could become a true rivalry mercifully disappeared when the two teams didn't meet between 2010 and 2014.

Ohio State, Michigan don't qualify: Some Lions fans would like to think of Big Ten powers Ohio State and Michigan as rivals, but sorry to say, a rivalry must be a two-way street. The Buckeyes and Wolverines each have just one real rival — each other.

Besides, as long as Ohio State and Michigan continue to dominate Penn State, any talk of a rivalry with either team is pointless. The hammer can't have a rivalry with a nail, and right now, the Buckeyes and Wolverines are sledgehammers, while the Lions are mere thumbtacks.

So PSU's rivalry search goes on.

Well folks, the glory days of the Penn State-Pitt rivalry are gone and likely aren't coming back.

Maryland is best option: The closest that the Lions will come to a true rival will arrive  Saturday when the unbeaten Maryland Terrapins invade Beaver Stadium.

The Terps check off most of the boxes needed for a real rivalry with PSU.

The two teams play in the same division (East) in the same conference (Big Ten).

They're now scheduled to play each and every year. Right now they play in the middle of the season, but hopefully in the future it can be moved to the final week.

The two campuses are in bordering states and are relatively close (about 200 miles apart). The programs have long battled on the recruiting trail. The location of the schools should make this annual battle especially interesting for folks here in York County, who sit smack in the middle between Beaver Stadium and the Terps' Capital One Field (formerly Byrd Stadium).

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Penn State has played Maryland more than any other Big Ten school (39 times). The overall series has been lopsided in the Lions' favor (36-2-1), but since the Terps joined the Big Ten in 2014, the two teams have engaged in two pulsating, one-point thrillers. Maryland won, 20-19, in 2014, and PSU won 31-30 last season. This year, Maryland is a 1 1/2-point favorite. It doesn't get much more competitive than that.

Some bitterness: Finally, things have gotten a little bitter between the two programs. When the two teams met in 2014 at Beaver Stadium, the Terps' captains famously refused to shake hands with the PSU captains before the game.

Maryland's coach at the time, Susquehannock High School graduate Randy Edsall, later apologized for the incident, but the memory of that disrespectful action still sticks in the craw of many in Nittany Nation.

Edsall, of course, is no longer the Terps' coach. He was fired in midseason of 2015.

Both teams need win: Maryland's new coach, however, seems to have the program on the rise. Under D.J. Durkin, the Terps are 4-0 and coming off an impressive 50-7 dismantling of Purdue in their Big Ten opener last week. A road win over PSU would likely move Maryland into the Top 25.

PSU, meanwhile, sits at 3-2 overall and is coming off a desperately-needed 29-26 overtime triumph over Minnesota. Combine that with a win on Saturday vs. the Terps, and the Lions would largely erase the agonizing memories of the heartbreaking loss to Pitt (42-39) and the humiliation in the Big House vs. Michigan (49-10). It also would  do wonders for James Franklin's job security.

The ingredients are there: So, all the ingredients for a real rivalry will be there on Saturday at Beaver Stadium.

No, it's not a perfect fit, at least not yet. It will almost certainly never approach the glory days of the Penn State-Pitt rivalry from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s.

Given time, however, the Penn State-Maryland game could eventually become the must-see contest on each team's schedule each year.

But please, don't force some pea-brained trophy on the game. We don't need another Land Grant fiasco.

Just let the rivalry grow organically.

Then, hopefully, in a decade or two, the Penn State-Maryland game will become something really special — an annual showdown that each team feels it simply must win.

Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com.