By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa football team has become quite the story with its dynamic duo at tight end, its strong-armed quarterback and its rock-solid defense leading the way.
It’s easy to get so wrapped up in the 19th-ranked Hawkeyes that you overlook Maryland’s story, which is rooted in tragedy and grief, but one that also inspires.
The death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair from heat exhaustion in June has had far-reaching consequences with Maryland head coach D.J, Durkin placed on administrative leave in August and with the dismissal of strength coach Rick Court.
McNair’s death led to reports of a toxic culture under Durkin’s watch.
It also led to an investigation of the football program by an independent committee, and that investigation was just recently completed, according to the Washington Post.
However, any decision on Durkin’s future still could be a week or more away.
So the players and coaches continue to operate under a cloud of tragedy and uncertainty, and for Maryland to be 4-2 midway through the season is a testimony to their strength and courage.
Interim head coach Matt Canada has helped to stabilize things during an unstable time.
“I don't know all the details of what's going on there,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. “I just know it had to be a really challenging time for everybody there, their entire staff and football team. The way they're playing, you have to give everybody credit.
“It starts with (Matt Canada). He's certainly been the one that pulled them all together, kept everybody going in the right direction. When you watch film, you would never know there was any turbulence there. That's impressive.”
And, of course, it helps to have talent, which Maryland has its fair share, especially at the skill positions.
If the 14 Big Ten teams held a track meet, I’d like Maryland’s chances of winning the sprints and the relays, and maybe the whole thing.
The Terrapins are ranked third in the Big Ten in rushing offense, averaging a whopping 245.2 yards per game, and they have four players with at least 151 rushing yards, led by the speedy Ty Johnson with 435 yards on just 54 carries.
Maryland has four players who have at least 24 rushing attempts and all four of them average at least 5.0 yards per carry.
Combine Maryland’s explosiveness with an offensive style that relies on misdirection plays and multiple formations and the Iowa defense could have its hands full today at Kinnick Stadium.
Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker coaches his defense to prevent big plays, sort of a bend, but don’t break philosophy, and that style will certainly be tested on Saturday.
“They do a lot, and credit to their offense, they have a lot of options that they can get into,” said Iowa linebacker Djimon Colbert. “They can get into triple option. They can get into jet sweeps and stuff like that. And they can throw the ball, too.
“We just have to prepare for everything. It’ a big mental challenge for the linebackers and the (defensive backs) this week. And for our whole defense. I think it’s one of our most mentally challenge weeks of the season so far.”
Colbert is part of an Iowa linebacker group in which six different players have started at the three positions, partly due to injuries.
The Iowa defenders will have to be assignment sound and aware of everything that is happening around them.
Because the danger with Maryland is it only takes one moment of hesitation to get burned.
As for Maryland’s passing attack, it leaves much to be desired and is probably the biggest reason why the Terrapins have been so up and down this season, with victories over Texas, Bowling Green, Minnesota and Rutgers and losses to Temple and Michigan, each by 21 points.
Maryland pounded Minnesota 42-13 on Sept. 22 at home, but lost to Temple 35-21 the week before at home.
Maryland is ranked last in the conference in passing offense with just 723 yards in six games.
Quarterback Kasim Hill is only completing 53.4 percent of his passes and has thrown just six touchdown passes in six games, while Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley threw six touchdown passes during last Saturday’s 42-16 victory over Indiana.
Maryland is ranked third in the conference in total defense and passing defense and fifth in rushing defense.
So if you take out the passing statistics, Maryland is excelling at a high rate.
But since passing is now such a key component, the Terrapins are vulnerable and unpredictable because of their inability to accomplish much through the air.
Iowa should have enough firepower on both offense and defense to withstand Maryland’s big-play capability, especially with the support of a sellout crowd on homecoming.
Saturday's game will be just the third meeting between the two teams, with each winning on its home field. Maryland defeated Iowa 38-31 in 2014 at home and the Hawkeyes evened the series with a 31-15 victory in 2015 at Kinnick Stadium.
The Iowa players can’t just go through the motions and expect to win because they’re not good enough to do that and because Maryland is too good to not take advantage.
Iowa is showing signs of being special this season, and if that truly is the case, Iowa should win this game.
Prediction: Iowa 34, Maryland 20
Iowa vs. Maryland
When: Saturday, 11:01 am
Where: Kinnick Stadium
Series: tied at 1-1