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Matchup to Watch: Maryland’s offensive line vs. Iowa’s defensive line

The Hawkeyes front has been a bit of a surprise for 2021, can it continue to flourish as Big Ten play returns?

NCAA Football: Maryland at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Week 1: Ty Fryfogle vs. Iowa’s corners
Week 2: Charlie Kolar/Chase Allen vs. Iowa’s linebackers
Week 3: Kent State’s corners vs. Iowa’s wide receivers
Week 4: Thomas Pannunzio vs. Tory Taylor

In most respects, Taylor came out the victor in last week’s matchup as Pannunzio was held to a meager 6 yards on 3 returns. Yet his 43.5 yards per punt were the worst of the season by 4 yards. His average was anchored by a 22-yarder which set Colorado State up for a 35-yard touchdown drive. What exacerbated his off day was the punting of Ryan Stonehouse, who came in and averaged 51.1 yards/punt for the Rams and consistently put Iowa in poor field position. The resulting disadvantage in the punting game highlights just how thin the Hawkeyes’ margins can be any given Saturday.

After three games where the #5 Iowa Hawkeyes (4-0) were able to get off the field on third down (12/43), the Colorado State Rams were able to flip the script last week. They converted 11/23 - their best outing on the season - as QB Todd Centeio made magic happen throughout the first half with 4 of the Rams’ 9 first half conversions coming via his legs for an average gain of 9 yards.

The Hawks cleaned it up in the second half as they improved their contain and notched able to get home and gather two of their three sacks on the day. Centeio’s rushing numbers fell off a cliff in the half with 8 carries for -23 yards, a far cry from his first half 9-for-42. While Taulia Tagovailoa is much more of a pocket passer than Centeio, he can win games with his feet which will require Iowa’s defensive line to play sound football against the Maryland Terrapins (4-0).

Among the Terps’ bevy of highly rated players coming out of high school, the only starter along the line garnering 4 stars was left tackle Jaelyn Duncan, who stands a mean 6’6”, 320 lbs. As Hawkeye fans, we know recruiting stars do not mean everything, so when you look at their line now, it certainly has the look of classic Big Ten lines. Each starter weighs well over 300 pounds with three standing 6’5” or taller.

A hat-tip to commenter denton8er above

According to fellow SBNation blog, Testudo Times, the line is coming off their best game of the season against Kent State. They yielded just one sack to the Golden Flashes and averaged 5 yards/carry behind the big guys up front. Taulia has been sacked twice a game on average (56th in the country), a number which looks a little better as a sack rate (4.76% or 46th) when considering how often Maryland drops back. They’ve also averaged over 4.5 yards/carry after a season-low 3.7 against West Virginia to open the season.

While the aggregates play to Maryland’s favor, a deeper look at situational football hints that they may not be so strong up front. The Terps are not particularly great at converting 3rd downs (34% against FBS opponents) but neither was Colorado State entering their game against Iowa. They also struggle a bit in the red zone, converting 65% of their red zone drives into scores, good for 109th in the country.

Iowa matches up favorably in almost all the above areas - sacks/sack rate, yards/carry, & 3rd downs - with red zone defense being the exception. Opponents have scored on 7 of 8 red zone opportunities, though to be fair, 2 opportunities/game is light.

However, the Hawks will need to lean on their depth and, dare I say, speed up front as none of Iowa’s linemen can match the beef of Maryland’s front (only Noah Shannon and Yahya Black are defensive linemen over 280 pounds). Of course, assignment football is as important as ever, as the defensive line may not be asked to pile stats but keep Tagovailoa in the pocket or offensive linemen occupied for Iowa’s linebackers to make plays.

Friday night’s game offers as big and unique a challenge as any of Iowa’s opponents thus far. The Terrapins are a talented team looking to make a statement in front of jacked up fans. Their size and ability up front will make life difficult for Iowa’s defensive line and a quarterback like Taulia can break plays even when everything else goes right.

If the Hawkeyes can win the battle of the trenches, though, they’ll put themselves in great position to come away with the road win.