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No. 21 Maryland football’s fast start fueled by confident offense: ‘We’ve known we could do this for a long time’

In describing the early days of their partnership in January, Maryland offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery talked about how he and first-year coach Mike Locksley spent marathon sessions getting comfortable with each other and figuring out what was going to help the Terps score points.

“The growing process for me was just phenomenal,” Montgomery recalled in the spring, the only time Locksley’s assistants were made available to the media. “Not a lot of coaches were here, especially our offensive coaches. It was just Locks and I. I had a huge advantage. From 5 a.m. to midnight, I could do all ball.”

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Watching film of what Locksley had done last season as offensive coordinator at Alabama, they often asked each other a simple question.

“He got to hear me say, ‘Why?’ And then he got to ask me, ‘Why?’ ” Montgomery said. “At the end of the days, our ‘whys’ matched.”

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A few months later, those whys have turned into opposing teams asking how they will stop what has suddenly become college football’s highest-scoring offense.

Going into Saturday’s game at Temple, Maryland leads the country in points (71 per game) after back-to-back blowouts of Howard (79-0) and then-No. 21 Syracuse (63-20). The Terps (2-0) are also fourth in both total offense (636.5 yards per game) and rushing offense (335.5) and eighth in third-down conversion rate (60.7%).

And with the arrival of graduate transfer quarterback Josh Jackson, a team that finished 121st among 129 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in passing last season with a paltry 141.3 yards a game is now 30th (301 yards per game). That has helped the team turn all but one of its 14 red-zone possessions into touchdowns.

It has also led to Maryland being ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time since 2013, and the No. 21 Terps have their highest ranking since 2006.

Much of the early season success — and excitement — has to do with the offense.

“Our execution has to be at a high rate, and if you execute at a high level, the points will take care of themselves,” Locksley said after practice Wednesday. “Ultimately, the goal is to score one more point than the opponent. We don’t say we want to average 70 points a game.”

First-year Temple coach Rod Carey said in a teleconference Monday that much of it has to do with Jackson, but acknowledged that Maryland’s skill-position players have helped the redshirt junior make a seamless transition from Virginia Tech. As a redshirt freshman in Blacksburg two years ago, Jackson threw for nearly 3,000 yards, more than any freshman quarterback at a Power 5 school that season.

“The quarterback’s playing at a high level right now,” Carey said. “It’s also the most obvious thing. But then they have really good skill around him. They’re just executing at a high level. He’s not just a good decision-maker; he’s a talented, talented guy. You combine that talent with decision-making, anytime you have that at quarterback, defenses are on their heels.”

Aside from Jackson, the offense features what might be the deepest group of running backs in the country, led by redshirt junior Anthony McFarland Jr. and junior Javon Leake. It had a tight end tandem that their coach, Mike Miller, has called “Lightning” (sophomore Chigoziem Okonkwo) and “Thunder” (graduate transfer Tyler Mabry). The Terps also have a group of receivers that seems to find a new leader each week.

“Ever since spring, we knew it was going to be like this,” said Okonkwo, who scored two touchdowns in the Red-White spring game. “We literally witnessed it, all of our playmakers just making plays. It’s a surprise to everybody else, but we’ve known we could do this for a long time.”

Said Mabry: “We just feed off each other. We’ve got so many playmakers. That’s what we harp on as an offense every day with Coach Montgomery. We’ve got to keep working and use everything we have.”

After practice Wednesday, Locksley was asked about the mindset of going up against a team with such a potent offense.

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“When the other team is 28-0 or 28-7, which I’ve been a part of some of those, it forces you to start calling plays to put yourself in position to close the gap,” Locksley said. “That makes it tough on a play-caller. In a perfect world, you want to stay on task and on track, but you also realize when you get down early, it’s playing uphill the rest of the game and you adjust how you call it.”

Having flamed out at New Mexico in his first chance to be a head coach, then resurrecting his career in 2012 as Maryland offensive coordinator, Locksley can relate to what Montgomery is going through this season. East Carolina went 9-26 with Montgomery as head coach before he was fired leading up to last season’s final game.

“I know it’s refreshing not having to worry about everything, when you can just put your attention on what it is you’re doing, and he’s done an unbelievable job with the offense,” Locksley said, “from calling it on game day to organizing it the way I want it to be organized.”

At his news conference Tuesday, Locksley said that the most impressive aspect of Montgomery’s play-calling is “his ability to his pace. Having a next call ready.”

Acutely aware of what Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said in August when he accused Locksley of not giving him enough credit when they worked together last season at Alabama — Gattis was receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator — Locksley has made sure to let everyone know Montgomery is calling all the plays.

“As everybody knows, it’s a staff that helps shape the game plan and I look at myself as part of the staff. I’m part of the process of putting together the game plan,” Locksley said. “But Scottie calls it 100% of the time and I make suggestions in between series and make some suggestions during the course of a series.

“As I used to say as a play-caller, you know the offense has to take on the personality of the play-caller and Scottie is a smart guy. I like to joke about him being a Duke grad and that means he’s the smartest guy in the room because he went to Duke. And he loves that, but he’s a good football coach, he’s been around some really good coaches."

Montgomery, who was the receivers coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers when Bruce Arians was offensive coordinator and was later the offensive coordinator at Duke under David Cutcliffe in 2014 and 2015, said in the spring that he knew he would be calling the plays when he was hired in January.

“I never drew any lines in the sand with him,” Montgomery said. “That’s not the way we communicate even though we communicated about it.”

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Former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, who will serve as color analyst for Saturday’s game on the CBS Sports Network, said in a telephone interview Thursday that he asked Locksley and Montgomery how excited the players were watching tape of Alabama from last season.

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'You’re watching that and you’re seeing receivers wide open, you’re seeing [quarterback] Tua [Tagovailoa] making incredible plays, I don’t know how that couldn’t get you excited if you’re playing any position on that football team," Murray said. “It got Josh Jackson to show up, knowing that he was going to run the same system that an almost-Heisman [winning] quarterback ran last year.”

Murray said that even if defenses get to see more tape of the Terps in the coming week, Maryland’s offense is in its infancy and has room for improvement.

“These guys are still learning the playbook, they’re still fine-tuning and going through the details getting better,” Murray said. “It’s not like they’ve been in this system for three or four years. They’re going to continue to progress every single week. Coaches are going to add on to the playbook and get a little more creative with the play calls and a lot of those will go out there and win those matchups.”

Leake, who leads the Terps in rushing and has emerged as one of the team’s biggest offensive threats, doesn’t expect the offense to slow down.

“I feel like we’ve just got to keep going, the points are going to come,” Leake said after rushing for 107 yards on seven carries against Syracuse, including a 64-yard touchdown run that tied his career high. “We’ve just got a good offense, a lot of weapons in space."

NO. 21 MARYLAND@TEMPLE

Saturday, noon

TV: CBSSN Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM

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