Iowa’s upcoming game against Maryland has all the makings of a classic trap game. The matchup takes place one week before Iowa plays host to Penn State, and it would be easy for the Hawkeyes to look ahead to what might be a meeting of two Top Five teams. To make matters worse, the Maryland game involves a long road trip after a short week of preparation and forces the Hawkeyes to play a late Friday night game against a team that already has experience playing and winning such a contest this season.
Still, there are reasons to suspect that Iowa will come out prepared for what could be a surprisingly competitive game under the Friday night lights. Maryland’s 4-0 record should make it more difficult for the Hawkeyes to overlook them, and Iowa’s flat first half against Colorado State last week may well have alerted this team to the perils to taking any opponent lightly. If the Hawkeyes want to show that their poor outing against the Rams was a fluke, defeating an unbeaten Terrapins team on the road is the best way to smother any doubt about whether Iowa deserves it #5 ranking.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in this week’s game:
1. Can Iowa contain Maryland’s dynamic passing attack?
After years of quarterback injuries that could rival Iowa’s experience with AIRBHG, Maryland has finally found stability at the position in the hands of Taulia Tagovailoa, a player whose older brother Tua shattered passing records during his tenure with Alabama. Tagovailoa commands a passing attack that averages a Big Ten-leading 353.3 yards per game and has thrown ten touchdowns on the year compared to one interception. Taulia is not the blue-chip NFL prospect that his brother was, but he has proven capable of matching his brother’s efficiency, completing an otherworldly 75.5% of his passes, the third highest in the nation.
Tagovailoa is the main attraction, but his stable of weapons is also a major contributor to the success of the Terrapins’ aerial attack. Dontay Demus Jr. is leading the conference with 446 receiving yards and proven to be a legitimate threat in the vertical passing game thanks to his size and athleticism. Rakim Jarrett is an elite athlete capable of leaving defensive backs in his dust, while Jeshaun Jones is a crisp route runner with a knack for getting open at critical junctures in the game. Meanwhile, Maryland’s potent passing attack has succeeded in spreading out opposing defenses and creating open running lanes for running back Tayon Fleet-Davis who is averaging over seven yards per carry and is also a weapon catching the ball out of the backfield.
The matchup of Iowa’s pass defense against the Maryland air attack pits strength against strength and could very well decide the fate of the game. The Hawkeyes have more interceptions (six) than any team in the Big Ten and rank second in the conference in passes defended (27) and opposing quarterback rating (101.34). Iowa has already run back two interceptions for touchdowns and seen two highly regarded quarterbacks benched against them due to poor performance. While Tagovailoa has been highly accurate this season, he threw a combined six interceptions in his two games against Top 20 scoring defenses last season. The Terrapins’ diverse group of pass catchers will likely result in Iowa playing its three-safety 4-2-5 look for most of the game. If Iowa’s defensive backs can lock down receivers the way they did against Indiana and Iowa State and avoid giving up big plays downfield, they stand a strong chance of escaping College Park with a win.
2. Can the Hawkeyes jumpstart their running game?
Iowa’s running attack has been extremely inconsistent through its first four games. While Goodson ran roughshod over Kent State and busted a huge run against the Hoosiers on Iowa’s opening drive, the ground game has been otherwise mediocre and the Hawkeyes are averaging only 3.34 yards per carry, trailing only Purdue for the lowest mark in the Big Ten. Iowa has surrendered 109 yards on tackles for loss this season, while Hawkeye running backs have been credited with four fumbles through as many games.
The Hawkeyes will need to find an antidote to their rushing woes if they hope to generate much offensive success against Maryland. The Terrapin secondary is beatable (they surrendered 308 passing yards against Kent State last week), but only if opposing quarterbacks have enough time to get their passes off. The Terrapins have recorded sixteen sacks already this season (good for 5th in the nation) with senior defensive lineman Sam Okuayinonu leading the way with four on the year. Given the struggles of the Hawkeye offensive line in pass protection, Iowa will be better served if it can move the ball on the ground while limiting the number of times Spencer Petras has to drop back to pass on 3rd and long, an area where the offense has struggled this season.
Is Maryland’s defense up to the task? It’s difficult to say; the Terrapins have held opponents to only 111.75 rushing yards per game this year, but surrendered a whopping 230 per game in 2020. Is Maryland’s run defense really that much better in 2021, or are their statistics artificially inflated due to their high number of sacks and their cupcake game against Howard? Tyler Goodson should serve as an excellent test case, especially with Maryland Maryland linebacker Branden Jennings expected to be held out of tonight’s game. If Iowa can establish the run early, the Terrapins could be in trouble.
3. Can Iowa capitalize on Maryland’s mistakes?
Iowa’s defense has thrived on making its opponents pay for their errors. The Hawkeyes have forced a conference-leading nine turnovers this season and has scored as a result of all of them, turning these takeaways into 51 points. The Terrapins, meanwhile, have shown excellent ball security this season, committing only four turnovers through as many games. Will Iowa’s ball hawking defense continue to create takeaways and force Maryland into playing an uncharacteristically sloppy game? One thing is for certain—the Terrapins have to play a defense of Iowa’s caliber in 2021.
Even if the Hawkeyes fail to continue their turnover streak, however, there is reason to believe they will have opportunities to make Maryland pay for their unforced errors. Maryland averages 69.3 penalty yards per game compared to Iowa’s 40.8 (Maryland committed nine penalties for 120 yards last week), and while the Terrapins have had no trouble moving the ball, they have the fourth-worst redzone conversion percentage in the conference which could play right into the hands of Iowa’s patented bend-but-don’t-break defense.
Coaching may well be what makes the difference in a game being played between two teams with contrasting styles on a short week of preparation. Maryland exploded onto the scene this season on the strength of head coach Mike Locksley’s impressive recruiting successes, but Maryland has squandered several hot starts in seasons past and Locksley is still a coach with a career .218 winning percentage. The last time Maryland hosted a ranked Big Ten team on a Friday night, Penn State obliterated the Terrapins 59-0 and ruined what was being billed as Locksley’s coming out party in the conference. The moment proved too big for the Terrapins two seasons ago, and the Hawkeyes must be prepared to capitalize on both sides of the ball should Locksley’s team find itself blinded by the lights once again.