As the Maryland football team was fast approaching its 2019 season opener in late August, first-year coach Mike Locksley said the battle at starting quarterback between graduate transfer Josh Jackson and redshirt junior Tyrrell Pigrome had intensified to the point where it was a toss-up.

Locksley said the player who took care of the ball and helped put more points on the board would win the job.

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Ultimately, Jackson won it and validated Locksley’s decision by throwing for seven touchdowns and committing just one turnover in leading the Terps to easy victories over Howard and then-No. 21 Syracuse. The Terps’ combined total of 142 points during the 2-0 start was the most in consecutive games in program history.

Now, after Jackson struggled behind an eroding offensive line and his own inability to properly read defenses in losses to Temple and then-No. 12 Penn State — leading to three interceptions and the offense producing just 17 points — the question about who would start against Rutgers on Saturday was raised this week.

The answer from Locksley earlier this week was emphatic, though he did leave himself an out.

“Josh is our starter,” Locksley said. “Just like any other position, you remain a starter based on your ability to produce. And for us, at the quarterback position, it starts with taking care of the football first, scoring points second and displaying leadership third. You’ve got to get that out of that position, and if we feel we’re not getting that out of Josh, we won’t hesitate to give Piggy a chance.”

After two days of practice this week, the answer had not changed.

Asked after practice Wednesday whether he anticipated taking the same approach to Rutgers on Saturday, Locksley said: “Nothing different than what we’ve done. Jackson is our starting quarterback. We split the reps [in practice] like we do every week. We added Ty DeSue to the mix.

“We’re hoping we can get Josh going early and get him some confidence to where we can get him to where he played in the first two games. The way he’s practiced this week, the way he’s prepared, I feel good that he’s going to have a good week for us.”

The last two games have been among the worst in Jackson’s college career, which began when he passed for nearly 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman at Virginia Tech two years ago in leading the Hokies to a 9-4 record.

After completing just 15 of 38 passes for 183 yards with a touchdown and an interception in a 20-17 road loss to Temple — a game Locksley referred to as an “outlier” — his performance against Penn State ended with Jackson completing 10 of 21 passes for a career-low 65 yards and two costly interceptions, both leading to touchdowns for the Nittany Lions.

“He played a little better in this game than he did in the Temple game, but still missed some opportunities,” Locksley said. “We’ve got to continue on the offensive side of the ball to figure out ways to get our best players the ball, which are our running backs, and we’ve got a few receivers and tight ends. Our quarterback has to distribute it.

“In this offense, we’ll go through our quarterback and his ability to make the decisions we need him to make on each and every play. But we had two turnovers on our first three drives and we gave up 21 points off of turnovers. The one down in the red zone was backbreaking with a team like ours. We drive it back down there and have a chance to get 14-7 and we don’t come away with points — kind of took the life out of us.”

Said graduate transfer tight end Tyler Maybry, who this season became the first Maryland tight end to score in consecutive games in more than a decade: “I think when we score, it’s always like a light on the sideline. We got to get back to that light. Once we get that, we’ll be rolling again.”

Mabry was asked if Penn State’s 95-yard touchdown drive after Jackson’s second interception — on a pass intended for Mabry in the end zone that was underthrown — turned off the light for the Terps.

“In some minds it probably did, but I was on the sideline keeping everybody positive,” Mabry said. “I’ve been at Buffalo [for three years]. I’ve been down before. I’ve experienced that. I’ve got to do a better job as a leader, to bring everybody up and keep going and doing the same thing we’ve been doing. I’ve got to do a better job to keep our chin up.”

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Locksley said he takes responsibility for his team appearing to give up.

“That’s my job when we have adversity like that, it can’t create the environment, the culture on the sideline where it’s a ‘here we go again’ mentality rather than ‘let’s go do it again,’ ” Locksley said.

Asked if the problems of pass protection on the offensive line — Jackson was sacked four times in each of the past two games — might make it more suitable for someone with Pigrome’s ability to run, Locksley said: “I think you’ll always need protection because they contain you. That takes that away. I just think for us, staying in manageable third downs. We don’t have a lot of protection issues on first and second down. Third downs have been our Achilles heel.”

Said Mabry: “As Coach always says, ‘It’s all 11 that protect the quarterback. So by running the right routes, by linemen blocking the right people, everything’s got to be one cohesive unit.’ We’ll get back to that, and Josh will be back together.”

Jackson has not been made available to the media since before the Penn State game.

Locksley said most of his team’s offensive struggles the past two weeks came about because the Terps didn’t get much yardage on first and second down, setting up many third-and-long situations. After converting 18 of 30 third and fourth downs the first two weeks, including 11 of 15 in a 63-20 win over Syracuse, the Terps were just 6-for-27 against Temple and 5-for-17 against Penn State.

Of those third-down situations against the Nittany Lions, 10 were with at least 7 yards to go.

“We’re not built up front to protect as long as to get that yardage,” Locksley said.

Locksley said things might have been different for Jackson in terms of execution and emotion had he not been intercepted on his first series in the Penn State game. A good start against Rutgers, which is ranked last or next-to-last in the Big Ten in most defensive categories, could help renew his confidence.

“You can’t wish confidence back,” Locksley said. “I think what happens, you look it again the first drive of the game, we have a wide-open [Dontay] Demus for a touchdown, we throw an interception. When you have opportunities like that, you’ve got to make that play. That’s how your confidence comes, making the plays that are there to be made and playing with great discipline.”

Maryland@Rutgers

Saturday, noon

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TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: 1300 AM, 980 AM

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