8:00 PM EST, FS1 – Line: Iowa -4, Over/Under: 46
BIG Ten unbeatens look to remain perfect, as the improved Maryland Terrapins play host to the (No. 5) Iowa Hawkeyes in their first meeting in three years, from Maryland Stadium in College Park, Maryland. Coming into this season, it was fair to state that Iowa (4-0, 1-0 in BIG Ten) was a bit of a question mark, particularly following an uneven 2020 that was rocked by controversy within the program and (of course) the COVID-19 pandemic, whose influences ravaged the sporting landscape across the country. They were also hit hard by graduation and NFL hopefuls, with just twelve returning starters, including only five on the offensive side of the football. With that said, this was a team that following a slow start absolutely surged down the stretch, winning their final six contests, including convincing victories over the likes of Penn State (41-21) and Wisconsin (28-7). So the question was this: could they carry that momentum over into 2021, and upon entering his twenty-third year with the school would (Head Coach) Kirk Ferentz indeed quell the rumors that he was considering retirement and lead them on yet another successful campaign? Well, with roughly one-third of the schedule in the books, the answer to both of those questions has been a resounding YES. Simply put, Iowa looks like the clear-cut favorite to win the BIG Ten West at this point, winning their first four games for just the fifth time during Ferentz’s tenure in Iowa City. One of the best development programs in the country, it appears that the Hawkeyes have had no trouble transitioning to so many new starters, particularly in the trenches where both Lines have seen a wealth of turnover. The Defense in particular has been nothing short of impressive, yielding a scant 11.0 points per game (3rd Overall) on 271.5 total yards thus far, relinquishing 3.9 yards per play and forcing a very healthy nine turnovers. In the Season Opener against Indiana (34-6), Ferentz’s charges embarrassed a team that some thought would be a dark horse contender within the league, relegating the Hoosiers to 233 total yards and eleven first downs, logging three takeaways, two of which were interceptions returned for touchdowns courtesy of (Senior Cornerback) Riley Moss (17 TKL, 1.0 TFL, 1 FR, 2 INT, 3 PD, 2 TD). This unit would feast again a week later in Ames, frustrating (No. 9) Iowa State in a convincing 27-17 victory which marked their fifth consecutive triumph over their bitter state rivals. Again, takeaways rued the day as the visiting side came up with a QUARTET of them, intercepting (Cyclones’ Quarterback) Brock Purdy on three occasions, with (Junior Linebacker) Jack Campbell (43 TKL, 1.5 TFL, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR, 1 TD, 3 PD) returning a fumble six yards to the house. (Freshman Lineman) Lukas Van Ness (11 TKL, 4.5 TFL, 4.0 SK, 1 PD) has been absolute nightmare thus far, leading the Hawkeyes with 4.5 tackles for loss, four of which being sacks, while (Hybrid Edge-Rusher) Joe Evans (10 TKL, 3.0 TFL, 3.0 SK, 1 PD) has added another three sacks to a group that has frequently lived in the opponent’s backfield (13.0 SK). And it’s been a good thing that the Defense has been so dominant, because their teammates on the offensive side of the football are still very much trying to find their way. Even by Iowa’s standards, the attack has been altogether unspectacular, averaging 28.8 points (70th Overall) on just 293.0 total yards, thanks in large part to an Offensive Line that has been a work in progress and a Receiving Corps flush with new faces. Typically stellar up front, the Line has struggled to open rushing lanes with regularity; they’ve found success against the likes of Indiana (36 CAR, 158 YDS) and Kent State (38 CAR, 206 YDS), while failing to launch opposite of Iowa State (39 CAR, 67 YDS) and Colorado State (32 CAR, 54 YDS). (Junior Tailback) Tyler Goodson (80 CAR, 364 YDS, 4.6 Y/A, 5 TD) has proven throughout his time with the program that he can move the football between the Tackles, but he needs more help around him, and after last weekend’s 24-14 comeback win over the Rams, it appears he may have it. (Redshirt Junior) Spencer Petras (59.8%, 684 YDS, 6.4 Y/A, 4 TD, 1 INT), who has been little more than a game manager throughout his reign as the Starting Quarterback, offered a glimpse of his potential over the weekend; after giving his side the early lead via a 43-yard strike to (Freshman Receiver) Keagan Johnson (2 REC, 92 YDS, 46.0 Y/R, 1 TD), he would later give the hosts the lead with a 23-yard touchdown toss to fellow Junior, (Tight End) Sam LaPorta (17 REC, 214 YDS, 12.6 Y/R, 2 TD). Of course, that crucial possession was immediately preceded by a fumble recovery courtesy of the aforementioned Campbell, with (Junior Receiver) Tyrone Tracy (10 REC, 72 YDS, 7.2 Y/R, 0 TD) drawing level on a rare touchdown run on the following play. After trailing at Halftime for the first time this season, Iowa managed to retake the lead on just four combined plays in the Third Quarter. Petras was solid in completing 15-of-23 passes for 224 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, while Campbell totaled a career-high eighteen tackles in the affair. The victory was significant for extending a number of streaks, including a ten-game winning streak dating back to last season, the school’s longest since 2015, which coincidentally the last time that they enjoyed a ranking in the AP Poll as high as fifth. Furthermore, last weekend’s triumph marked their fifteenth consecutive nonconference win, and their twenty-sixth straight game limiting an opponent to twenty-four points or less, both of which are the longest in the country. Ferentz has faced Maryland on three occasions since the latter joined the BIG Ten back in 2014, besting the Terrapins in both 2018 (23-0) and 2015 (31-15) at Kinnick Stadium, though losing their only trip to College Park in 2014 (31-38), which is relevant because tonight’s tilt marks the Hawkeyes’ first game outside of the state of Iowa this season.
Meanwhile, Maryland (4-0, 1-0 in BIG Ten) also finds themselves riding the momentum of a perfect start, winning their first four outings of the season for the first time since 2016. However, that’s where the similarities end between these teams, for this is a program that is desperate to prove that they can indeed handle themselves against the many established powerhouses within the BIG Ten. Since joining the league seven years ago, the Terrapins haven’t won more than seven games in any particular campaign, and have yet to enjoy a winning record in conference play, as they have routinely sunk towards the bottom of the annually loaded East Division. With that said, (Head Coach) Mike Locksley enters a crucial third year of what has been an extensive rebuilding project, with the Washington D.C. native making waves on the recruiting trail in hopes of premium talent translating into success on the gridiron. After all, that was the mantra in his time as an assistant to Nick Saban at Alabama: pull out all the stops to get the top recruits, and then coach them up. While nobody will confuse his current surroundings with that of Tuscaloosa, the 51-year old has certainly brought some quality talent to College Park, including (Junior Quarterback) Taulia Tagovailoa (75.5%, 1,340 YDS, 9.1 Y/A, 10 TD, 1 INT) and (Junior Tackle) Jaelyn Duncan, along with a host of athletic Receivers highlighted by (Senior) Dontay Demus (24 REC, 446 YDS, 18.6 Y/R, 3 TD) and (Sophomore) Rakim Jarrett (17 REC, 265 YDS, 15.6 Y/R, 3 TD). With that kind of firepower the attack has been prolific, averaging 37.2 points (30th Overall) on whopping 519.3 total yards, racking up a stellar 6.9 yards per play. In his second season at Maryland, it seems that Tagovailoa has benefitted more than anyone from a proper offseason with the coaching staff, proving why he was worthy of originally joining the Crimson Tide three years ago; he’s completed a very efficient 75.5% of his attempts, while netting a healthy 9.1 yards per attempt, all the while sporting an accuracy and anticipation reminiscent of his older brother, Tua. A week after winning their BIG Ten opener at Illinois (30-17), Tagovailoa put together arguably his finest performance with the Terrapins, helping them overcome a number of self-inflicted wounds in last Saturday’s 37-16 victory over Kent State. Despite committing a pair of turnovers and being flagged for NINE penalties for a loss of 120 yards, the Junior nonetheless completed 31-of-41 passes for a season-high 384 yards and three touchdowns, spreading the wealth to twelve different targets. Demus hauled in four receptions for a team-best 108 yards and a 33-yard touchdown which came on the drive following his Quarterback’s first interception of the campaign. However, the affair was notable for the play of the Defense, which after playing the role of Achilles heel last season will likely be the x-factor in just how high this team can ascend in 2021. Last season Maryland ranked tenth (32.0) and eleventh (409.0) in the BIG Ten in points and total yards allowed, while bringing up the rear with a league-worst 230.0 rushing yards relinquished. (Defensive Coordinator) Brian Stewart is back for his second stint with the program, with a unit that is largely starting from scratch, featuring just six starters from the previous term. Then again, that’s probably a good thing as Locksley and his Staff have continued to add quality pieces on this side of the football too. The Secondary in particular has been formidable, yielding 50.0% passing for 212.5 yards per game with two touchdowns and four interceptions. (Junior Safety) Nick Cross (18 TKL, 1 FF, 2 INT 1 PD) is the headliner here, snaring a pair of interceptions and forcing a fumble, while five different players have logged at least two sacks. The matchup at Kent State exposed them a bit in the passing game though, with the Golden Flashes hanging a total of 458 yards against the hosts, 308 of which came through the air, which is the most that Locksley’s charges have given up this year. Furthermore, the visitors had the football in Terps’ territory on seven of their first eight drives of the night, though could only manage a disappointing nine points due to their mistakes; a pair of long touchdowns were nullified after penalties, while the visiting side fumbled away possession upon advancing to the red zone late in the First Half. Simply put, if Kent State hadn’t been so intent on beating themselves then there is an excellent chance that that particular matchup could have been a lot closer than it was. Needless to say, it will take a much stronger effort for Maryland to match the likes of their next two opponents, as (No. 5) Iowa and (No. 10) Ohio State await. Residing just outside the rankings, this is a program that has earned the favor of the Polls just once in the last seven years, and a win tonight, which would mark their first over a Top-5 opponent since 2004, would undoubtedly propel them into the Top-25, while finally bringing some long-sought credibility to the project in the process.