Halfway through the 2018 football season, the Iowa Hawkeyes have displayed the potential to greatly exceed the expectations that many fans and national observers originally had for them. With yet another top-20 defense and a rejuvenated offensive attack propelled by Nate Stanley’s extraordinary passing output, the 2018 Hawkeyes have the makings of a team capable of putting together a truly special season. Still, Iowa’s schedule is littered with potential landmines; Penn State stands as the biggest remaining challenge, but nearly every conference opponent left on Iowa’s schedule is capable of defeating the Hawkeyes if fortune smiles on them on any given day.
Iowa’s opponent this weekend — Maryland — is just such a team. If the Hawkeyes have shown signs of surpassing their preseason expectations, the Terrapins have long since left the prognostications of August in their dust. Under interim coach Matt Canada the Terrapins overcame the tragic death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair and subsequent suspension of head coach D.J. Durkin to rally to a surprising 4-2 start, including a victory over the otherwise-undefeated Texas Longhorns. As intimidating as the prospect of a road trip to Kinnick Stadium is to most teams, one finds it difficult to imagine the Terrapins being quite as daunted by the task as most programs would be considering the magnitude of challenges their program has already been forced to endure. Maryland will be out to spoil Iowa’s homecoming this week, and Longhorn fans can attest to their capacity to do just that.
Here are a few key factors to watch heading into this weekend’s game:
1. Can Iowa contain Maryland’s run game?
While Iowa’s proficiency in the passing game has skyrocketed in recent weeks, Maryland’s aerial attack has been far more middling, as quarterback Kasim Hill has thrown for only 654 yards with a 53% completion rate so far this season. However, Maryland’s offense truly excels when it runs the ball; the Terrapin offense ranks 10th in the nation in yards-per-carry and 17th in yards per game. For evidence of the prowess of Maryland’s rushing offense one need look no further than its victory over Minnesota four weeks ago. While the Gopher defense held Iowa to 106 yards on the ground and Ohio State to only 92, Maryland gashed Minnesota in the ground game, racking up 315 rushing yards and four touchdowns in a 42-14 rout.
Kirk Ferentz compared Maryland’s offense to that of the Georgia Tech team Iowa faced in the 2010 Orange Bowl, and while Matt Canada’s squad certainly isn’t running the triple option, there are a number of similarities between the two units. Maryland heavily utilizes pre-snap movements to keep defenses on edge, running backs Ty Johnson and McFarland have both displayed big play ability as well as the capacity to sustain long drives by consistently moving the chains, and Maryland tries to catch opponents off-guard with the occasional deep shots in the passing game much in the same way Paul Johnson’s Yellow Jacket teams would use Demaryius Thomas and Stephen Hill to exploit defenses who have crept too close to the line of scrimmage. Iowa managed to corral Georgia Tech’s running game in the Orange Bowl, but Norm Parker also had a month to prepare for the complexity of Paul Johnson’s offense compared to the week that Phil Parker has to implement a scheme to stop Maryland’s.
Iowa’s stout defensive line will give it a significant edge in its quest to contain the Maryland rushing attack. Michigan, another defense whose strength lies in its incredible depth and talent up front, held Maryland’s ground game in check through much of the game by getting pressure with its defensive line (see here for a great write-up on the role of Iowa’s interior linemen in stopping the run this week). Additionally, Iowa should be in an excellent position to stop the Maryland offense if they can hold the rushing attack in check for the first two downs, as Maryland ranks a lowly 96th in the nation in 3rd down conversions. Iowa’s ability to force Maryland into long 3rd down attempts and create opportunities for its pass rushers to target Hill on obvious passing downs will go a long way to determining whether Maryland’s offense can successfully move the ball against the Hawkeye defense on Saturday.
2. Can Iowa win the turnover battle?
Maryland has excelled in creating turnovers while minimizing giveaways this season. Maryland currently ranks 5th in the country in turnover margin (Iowa, for reference, ranks 45th) and second in total interceptions, with senior defensive back Darnell Savage Jr. leads the Big Ten in interceptions with four (Iowa has eight as a team). 0
As fantastic as Stanley has looked this season, he has also shown himself to be more turnover prone than he was as a sophomore, as evidenced by the terrible interceptions he has thrown in consecutive weeks.
Maryland has certainly shown that it can capitalize on misguided throws from opposing quarterbacks. Conversely, Maryland’s aversion to fumbling combined with its small number of passing attempts minimizes the opportunity for Iowa to force takeaways of their own. Iowa does not necessarily need to win the turnover battle to claim victory on Saturday but keeping the turnover gap as small as possible would greatly minimize the chances of Maryland pulling the upset.
3. Does Maryland have an answer for the Iowa tight ends?
Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson currently share the honor of John Mackey Tight Ends of the Week after their performance against Indiana, and with good reason. Each player eclipsed 100 yards receiving last week, which is the first time such a feat has been accomplished by two Hawkeyes in the same game since Marvin McNutt and Keenan Davis so against Pittsburgh in 2011. Tight ends have always played an outsized role in the Hawkeye passing game relative to most programs, but the 2018 Hawkeyes have the luxury of starting two NFL-caliber players at the position capable of making big plays at any given moment.
Iowa’s tight ends are a mismatch for any team they will face this season, but they could pose a particular challenge for the Terrapins. Maryland’s defense consistently allowed both large and intermediate gains in the middle of the field last season and was absolutely gouged in this manner during consecutive losses against Ohio State and Northwestern. While the Terps have markedly improved in this area throughout 2018, Fant and Hockenson are both dangerous enough running seam and crossing routes over the middle of the field to seriously test the extent of Maryland’s growth in this realm. After the dominant showing of Iowa’s tight ends last week, Maryland’s back seven may find itself forced to choose between covering Iowa’s tight ends one-on-one or focusing its efforts on stopping Fant and Hockenson only to leave themselves vulnerable to big plays from Iowa’s burgeoning wide receiver corps. How the Terrapins approach this dilemma will have a major impact on how Iowa might deploy its passing attack on Saturday.
4. Which team can best avoid costly penalties?
Despite their strong performance against the Hoosiers last weekend, Iowa seemed particularly penalty prone; the Hawkeyes uncharacteristically committed eleven penalties for 110 yards, often artificially extending Hoosier drives or placing Iowa’s offense in second-and-long situations. Still, while Iowa’s average of 61.5 penalty yards-per-game is far too high for comfort, it pales in comparison to the penalties being committed by the Terrapins weekly. Maryland has accrued the third most penalty yardage on a per-game basis (92.3) and commits nearly ten penalties per game.
A certain amount of confusion of lack of discipline is to be expected considering the circumstances surrounding Maryland’s season; Matt Canada was hired as the offensive coordinator less than ten months ago and certainly did not expect to be thrust into his very first head coaching role a few weeks before the start of the season. Still, its difficult to imagine Maryland surrendering one hundred penalty yards to the Hawkeyes and walking out of Kinnick Stadium with a win, so unless Canada’s team is able to minimize its mental mistakes, Maryland may find itself in serious trouble.