Credit: Courtesy Maryland Athletics Department

The Maryland Terrapins opened their football season about as well as anyone could have expected, winning their first two games by a combined score of 142-20. The opponentsFCS Howard University and Syracusewere not the strongest, but the historic offensive performances created plenty of buzz for the program.

After two ugly losses, that optimism has given way to genuine concern.

“When you call the plays and they’re not being executed obviously that creates doubt,” head coach Mike Locksley said. “That creates a lack of confidence.”

This past Friday, after a bye week, Maryland hosted Penn State and completely self-destructed, losing 59-0 at home in college football’s marquee Friday night tilt. Quarterback Josh Jackson, the transfer who seemed to bring a new, exciting element to the position, threw two early interceptions that helped the Nittany Lions build a 38-0 lead by halftime. Penn State was bigger, stronger, faster, and more organized. The program showed Maryland exactly how far it has to go to compete in the Big Ten.

The loss came two weeks after the Maryland offense stalled in a 20-17 loss at Temple.

“We were out-coached. We were out-played,” Locksley said of the Penn State loss, “And that’s on me as the head coach and the leader of this football family, to have our guys prepared to go out and play the type of game we need to play.”

“It’s frustrating, but I give all the credit to Penn State,” added linebacker Keandre Jones. “They came out and they were the better team today.”

Jackson wasn’t the only one making mistakes. The offensive line, depleted by injuries, struggled to protect him. The defense gave up too many big plays, with 17 missed tackles. Maryland committed nine penalties, with many coming early in the contest. They were quickly down 14-0 in the first quarter, taking the energy out of a lively environment at College Park, in a sold-out stadium on a night where the school was honoring former head coach Ralph Friegden.

In the second quarter, Maryland fans started filing out after the Nittany Lions’ fifth unanswered touchdown, much to the delight of the many Penn State fans in attendance.

“Our fans came out and created a hell of an environment for us today, and we went out and didn’t do our job as a team,” Locksley said.

Maryland fans had circled the Penn State games on their calendars. Penn State is Maryland’s second-closest Big Ten rival geographically and the Nittany Lions recruit aggressively on Maryland’s home turf. The anticipation grew as Maryland opened 2-0 and made its way into the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches’ poll rankings.

The loss to Temple knocked them out of the top 25, but the Penn State matchup still offered a chance to prove this Terrapins team was ready for the big show. Even losing in a close contest would have been a promising enough outcome, but to have failed so spectacularly raises a lot of questions. The secondary looks vulnerable, the offensive line is shaky, and the most important position on the field is now under heavy scrutiny.

Jackson has completed just 25 out of 58 passing attempts and thrown three interceptions the past two games. The offensive line’s struggles and lack of a run game didn’t help, but Jackson also missed a lot of opportunities in the run-pass option heavy attack.

“This offense is quarterback-driven,” Locksley said. “To comment and say how Josh played other than I was disappointed and obviously the turnovers … We’ve got to protect Josh, we’ve got to do a good job of mixing it up and making sure our best players are touching the ball.”

He stopped short of giving Jackson his full vote of confidence after the game.

“Just like any position, as we evaluate the position, we all have to do our job,” Locksley said. “Josh is our quarterback but we also feel like if a guy isn’t productive, we’ve got to figure out a way to get productive players on the field.”

Jackson’s backup, Tyrell Pigrome, continues to receive reps in practice and may be in action soon.

After the Penn State beatdown, Maryland continues its season by visiting a Rutgers team on Saturday that just fired its head coach. Looking ahead on the schedule, Purdue, Indiana, Minnesota, and Nebraska are not on Penn State’s level and even Michigan does not seem as formidable as it was believed to be before the season. All hope is not lost. A bowl game is still within reach.

Maryland should be able to correct course against Rutgers, a team it has beaten three out of the past four years in Big Ten play, but that isn’t a guarantee.

“There’s nothing worse than playing a team that doesn’t have much to lose,” Locksley said. “When I was the interim coach, one of the things I know that I used to say is you can do anything you want, we can fake punts. So our guys have to be prepared for any and everything.”

Maryland’s next big test isn’t about whether it can hang with the powerhouses. It will be about how the team responds after a loss.