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Under new head coach Michael Locksley, Maryland’s football team has the college football world on watch for what the Terps can accomplish this season. In its first two games, Maryland has outscored opponents, 142-20.
The season opened with a 79-0 rout of Howard University, but while the score was impressive, Howard is a Football Championship Subdivision program and hardly a power in its own league. On Saturday, the Terrapins faced a Syracuse team fresh off a 10-win season and ranked No. 21 in the country in the Associated Press poll. Before the season, two players from the Syracuse defense made theAll-ACC preseason first team.
The Terps beat them convincingly, 63-20, and now Maryland is the one ranked 21st in the AP poll. It’s the first time Maryland has scored back-to-back 63-plus point games in team history.
“I was happy with the offensive execution early in the game,” says Locksley, a D.C. native who was hired last December to help stabilize the program. “We keep talking about football IQ and situational football and I think our guys are starting to get it.”
Maryland appears invigorated by Locksley’s leadership and a new face at quarterback, a position that has been historically unstable for the Terps.
Josh Jackson, a transfer from Virginia Tech, led the offensive attack Saturday, throwing for 296 yards and three touchdowns. The Terrapins operated almost entirely out of the shotgun, mixing it up with running backs Anthony McFarland Jr. and Javon Leake to open up the passing game. Jackson completed passes to eight players, who all caught multiple balls. Four pass-catchers, including McFarland, had at least 45 receiving yards.
“When they gave us a four-one box, it ended up being a touchdown,” Jackson says. “When they lower the box, we complete passes. It’s great to having running backs that can catch out of the backfield and have a couple of other good catchers.”
Aside from an interception, one of his few bad decisions on the day, Jackson looked comfortable executing on the coaches’ game plan. Maryland ran a relatively even mix of run and pass plays as it converted 11 out of 15 third downs and amassed 650 total yards at a clip of 7.8 yards per play.
“One thing that stood out to me about Josh since day one is that he’s always been a leader,” McFarland says. “He has control of the offense, he knows what everyone is doing. So, when you have a quarterback like that, the sky is the limit.”
Strategically, run-pass option (RPO) plays are the focal point of the offense. Locksley trusts Jackson to make the right decisions on this complex approach that is featured by many teams’ offenses, but rarely mastered.
“I think what you saw today out of Josh was his decision-making in the RPO game because we are asking him to make decisions after the ball is snapped and that’s why we picked him as our starter, because he makes good decisions,” Locksley says.
The Terps also have a wealth of talent at running back.
Four backs had over 66 rushing yards as they combined for a staggering 343 yards on Saturday. Leake had 107 yards and two touchdowns on just seven carries. McFarland, a former four-star recruit from the powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High School, finished with 120 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns despite seeing limited time in the second half.
Depth at the position gives Maryland fresh legs to employ a power-run style to burn down the clock.
“When you have a running back room like we have, it’s just great to be able to finish games with guys like Tayon Fleet-Davis and Jake Funk,” Locksley says. “Those guys were able to come in and finish the game in the fourth quarter.”
Teams don’t accumulate 343 rushing yards without a solid offensive line, and Maryland employs one. Locksley rotates senior Ellis McKennie across the line to spell the starters and the group allowed just one sack against Syracuse’s vaunted defensive front.
“With our running backs and the way we block it upfront, the only way you can stop it is by adding the extra guy in the box,” Locksley says. “That’s where you saw early in the game some of the RPO concepts where Darryl Jones had a big catch-and-run and [Dontay] Demus had a few.”
ESPN college football analyst Bill Connelly’s SP+ projections, an advanced team-evaluation system, give this Maryland team a 79 percent chance of making a bowl game and has the Terrapins ranked 38th overall in the country, up from No. 68 in his preseason rankings.
According to the Big Ten Network, the Terps’ 142-point total through two games is the fourth-best start for a Big Ten team since 1900. It’s also the most points in the history of Maryland’s program across any two-game stretch.
In five seasons as members of the Big Ten, the Terps have hardly struck fear in their East Division rivals, a group that includes perennial powers Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State. That may change this year.