Heading into last week’s trip to Bloomington, a fair number of Hawkeye fans, myself included, were nervous about the matchup with the Hoosiers. The passing game and the scoring ability seemed like an opportunity for the Hawkeyes to slip up. Those concerns were washed away very quickly.
This week, we saw similar concerns. The Maryland Terrapins weren’t known for throwing the ball, but they had the speed to stretch out Iowa’s defense horizontally and a dynamic pass rush doesn’t do much good against the run. It figured to be a high scoring affair with Iowa needing to throw the ball similar to the way they had the last two weeks to come out victorious.
Then the weather forecast reared its ugly head and all hope of any serviceable passing game seemed to dissipate. Was this about to become a classic trap game ahead of next week’s trip to Happy Valley?
No. No. No.
Not. Even. Close.
What we saw in Kinnick Stadium instead was an absolute beatdown of a Big Ten opponent unlike anything I can really recall under Kirk Ferentz. After a bit of a scare on Iowa’s opening possession as Nate Stanley channeled his inner Ricky Stanzi, throwing what has become his weekly head scratcher for an interception near the red zone and taking away near certain points, the defense stepped onto the field and immediately asserted their dominance.
Upon getting the ball back, the Iowa offense picked up right where they left off and marched the length of the field, chewing up the entirety of the first quarter. They only came away with 3, but that would have been enough with the defensive performance Saturday.
After the offense captured the hearts of Hawkeye Nation over the last two weeks, scoring more than 40 points in back-to-back conference road games in the same season for the first time ever, the defense stepped up with perhaps the most impressive outing we’ve seen since the take down of Georgia Tech in the 2010 Orange Bowl.
The numbers are staggering. Zero points allowed is really the only one you need to know, but just for giggles...
115. That’s how many total yards Maryland managed on Saturday. That marks a season low. It’s also the fewest yards an Iowa defense has given up in a Big Ten game. Ever.
39. That’s the number of plays Maryland ran in the entire game. It’s also the lowest number of plays run in a game by any team in FBS in the country this season.
19:05. That’s how many minutes Maryland possessed the ball on Saturday.
2. That’s how many offensive plays the Terrapins ran on the Iowa side of the 50. All. Day.
6. That’s how many points the Iowa defense scored. And it is, of course, six more than they gave up.
It was complete and utter domination by the Iowa defense. That 115 total yard figure was nearly doubled on Maryland’s final two possessions after the game was well within hand. After a couple weeks where opponents seemed to have an easier time moving the ball than Hawkeye fans have grown used to, it was a joy to see this group at work when they knew an opponent was one dimensional.
And it was further proof this defense is one of the best in the country. Through Saturday’s game, the Hawkeyes now rank 3rd nationally in total defense and 5th in scoring defense. They are flat out dominant.
With as dominant as the defense was, it was frankly a bit surprising to occasionally check in on the score and notice it wasn’t the massive blowout it felt like it should be. The primary reason was likely the absurd wind in Kinnick Stadium, but the overpowering Iowa passing game we’ve seen the last couple weeks was non-existent Saturday.
Tad windy out there today pic.twitter.com/ajSPnjrlBH— HeavensBarstool (@HeavensHawkeye) October 20, 2018
Stanley looked like a different player for most of the game. He kicked things off with the aforementioned interception on what was an otherwise very promising opening drive for the Hawkeyes. It’s become a weekly thing now, much like the Rick-sixes of 2009. Provided this season continues down a similar path (sans starting QB injury, please), I think many Iowa fans will forgive Stanley for the blunders.
Unfortunately, Nate didn’t do too terribly much to make up for the mind lapse this week. He finished the day 11 of 22 passing for only 86 yards and both a touchdown and interception. It was his worst performance of the season, taking the honors away from his week one 108 yards 1/1 on 11 of 23 passing outing against Northern Illinois.
Despite the struggles with the wind, Stanley did find Brandon Smith for his first career touchdown. And boy was it a beauty.
Can't decide which was more impressive...the dime from Nate Stanley or the one-handed grab from Brandon Smith. ♂️— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) October 20, 2018
We'll leave that to @HawkeyeFootball. pic.twitter.com/5HFN3NCUZy
The fact that this is arguably Smith’s second-most impressive catch of the Big Ten season is a testament to his growth and development this season. The passing game never really got going and Ihmir Smith-Marsette was a non-factor for the most part Saturday, but the duo has really come on strong this season. Combined with Nick Easley and the dynamic tight end duo of TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant operating over the middle, there are more receiving threats than we’ve seen in some time, even when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate.
With Saturday being one such day, we got a good, long look at the running game. With 224 yards coming on the ground, the Hawkeyes had their biggest rushing output of the season. Ivory Kelly-Martin came back from his concussion in a big way, carrying the load with 98 yards on 24 carries.
He led the way early and often, splitting first half carries with Mekhi Sargent. With a lead, the Hawkeyes trotted out Toren Young to grind on Maryland in the second half. When it was time to kill the clock and put the game away, it was back to IKM. It’s an interesting approach and one we’ll likely see with regularity the rest of the way.
Despite topping 100 yards rushing for the 7th consecutive time this season, the Hawkeyes have yet to have a single back top the 100 yard mark all year. The three-headed monster approach has worked well for the team, even if it has limited the individual output of the backs. It should mean fresh legs down the stretch and continued success running the ball.
That’s going to be critical with the slate of games now facing this team. Coming off some impressive performances against potent offenses where Iowa found a few different ways to win, they’ll need to put it all together over the next few weeks.
This week appeared to be the tallest task of the season only a few short weeks ago. Penn State boasts both a high-powered offense and a relatively stout defense. But they were bested by Ohio State a few weeks ago and seem to be still suffering some lingering effects of that loss. They dropped their second straight the week after with Michigan State in town. This week it took everything the Nittany Lions had to hold on against Indiana.
All of a sudden, that matchup in Happy Valley looks winnable. The Hawkeyes nearly got the job done a season ago. There are key pieces missing from both teams with guys like Akrum Wadley, James Daniels, Josey Jewell and Josh Jackson now in the NFL for the Hawkeyes, as well as Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki and DaeSean Hamilton, as well as a trio from the defensive backfield for Penn State. Iowa looks perhaps better than a season ago while PSU looks to have taken a step back.
But Iowa will need Stanley to look more like he did against Minnesota and Indiana than he did in the wind against Maryland. They’ll need to bring the run game along as well. And it would be a great week to see if this defense can be both stout against the run and get after the quarterback when the opposing offense isn’t one dimensional.
And don’t look now, but could the matchup with Penn State be the trap game before Iowa has to deal with Our Most Hated Rival? Purdue shocked Ohio State this weekend with an impressive 49-20 win. That’s the biggest margin of defeat for the Buckeyes since they lost 55-24 in Iowa City a season ago (people often forget that). The Boilermaker offense will certainly be another challenge for this stout Iowa defense in two weeks.
Both of these matchups are must-wins for Iowa with revived hopes of a return trip to Indianapolis. Wisconsin continues to look mortal, but Iowa isn’t the only team in the West with their eyes on the crown. Northwestern continues to find ways to escape the jaws of defeat at the last moment to lead the division at 4-1. And Purdue is now sitting right alongside Iowa at 3-1 in Big Ten play despite a 4-3 overall record.
It should be a thrilling ride over the next several weeks. But with the Hawkeyes showing new ways to win from week to week, my confidence in them continues to grow. This has all the makings of a special season, we just need to see a few special wins down the stretch.
Happy Monday, ya’ll. Have a special week. Let’s bag us some Lions in Happy Valley this weekend. Go Hawks!