Locksley brought a new offensive system to Maryland intending for it to resemble the one that broke program records at Alabama last season. When the scheme made its debut in College Park, transfer quarterback Josh Jackson led the enhanced offense with an effective performance free of major errors, an encouraging sign before the level of competition exponentially increases at noon Saturday against No. 21 Syracuse.
Against Howard, Jackson threw for 245 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions, completing 62.5 percent of his passes. And he did it all in the first half; the 79-0 result meant primarily backups played in the second half and four quarterbacks had a turn leading the offense.
But by Tuesday, when asked to assess his showing, Jackson said: “Oh, no, that wasn’t my best day. I think I had a good first start, but there are definitely places I can get better.”
He will have time to make those improvements, such as some minor decision-making mishaps. And even though Howard didn’t present much of a test, the game showed Maryland can pass effectively, the missing piece for last year’s offense.
Between Jackson and backup Tyrrell Pigrome, Maryland threw the ball 27 times in the first half alone. That’s more pass attempts than Maryland had in 11 of its 12 games last year, when it ranked 124th out of 129 Football Bowl Subdivision teams with 241 pass attempts and 121st with 141.3 passing yards per game. Some of that came by way of Howard’s Cover 0 defense, which focused on stopping the run. But Jackson and his receivers showed poise that should extend beyond the season debut.
Against Syracuse, the Terps’ somewhat inexperienced offensive line will need to provide time for Jackson against a formidable defensive front; that could be the game’s most important matchup. The Orange’s pass-rushing duo of seniors Kendall Coleman and Alton Robinson tied for second in the ACC last season with 10 sacks apiece, behind only Clemson all-American Clelin Ferrell, who had 12.
“The best thing we can do is try to establish the run,” Locksley said, “and see if we can find ways to run the ball and use our tempo and, again, get the ball out to our best skill guys as quickly and as often as we can.”
Maryland’s first-choice running backs didn’t have a showcase season debut, but not for lack of ability. Anthony McFarland, who could finish the year as one of the best backs in the Big Ten, had six carries for 18 yards. He didn’t have a carry or reception after the first quarter. Javon Leake, another talented resident of Maryland’s running backs room, had three carries for 23 yards.
Instead, Jackson and his receivers had a chance to make a case that this year’s passing game will bring something new. During the first quarter, which ended with a 28-0 Maryland lead, Jackson completed 8 of 14 passes, averaging more than 11 yards per attempt.
The passing game has improved “I feel like in every aspect,” senior receiver DJ Turner said. “We actually pass the ball a lot more than we did last year. It works out better for us. The timing is down a little bit better. And we have a great relationship with all of the quarterbacks, if it’s Josh or Pig.”
Despite losing Jeshaun Jones to a torn ACL in the preseason, Maryland has depth at wide receiver. Sophomore Dontay Demus led the group with 100 receiving yards Saturday, including a 62-yard touchdown pass from Pigrome, but Locksley said, “One game isn’t enough of a body of work for us to say that he’s ready to take the role of the alpha receiver for us.”
Two other sophomores, Brian Cobbs and Darryl Jones, each had more than 50 receiving yards. And though receiving opportunities were confined to the first half, other position groups still contributed. McFarland caught a 14-yard pass, and fellow running backs Leake and Jake Funk had two catches each. Tight ends Chigoziem Okonkwo and Tyler Mabry each notched a receiving touchdown for the Terps, who finished last season with just one score coming by way of a tight end reception.
So while the offense has yet to face the challenge it will find Saturday against Syracuse, the team exited the win with reassurance that Jackson might prove to be the stable quarterback Maryland has longed for and someone who can deliver a passing game this program has lacked.
“We realized we’re an offense that, if we do the right things, I don’t think we’ll be stopped,” Jackson said. “I think we have a lot of answers to what defenses can bring us, and if we just don’t hurt ourselves and we execute and make the plays we’re supposed to make, I think we’ll have a good chance of being a great offense.”