Thanks to Ross of Black Heart Gold Pants, the network's destination for all things Iowa Hawkeyes, for hanging around this week to answer questions about the Terps' homecoming football matchup with Iowa. Be sure to check out his and his colleagues' work as we roll toward game time, plus the other end of this discussion. And follow both Ross and BHGP for the weekend.
TT: It feels like Kirk Ferentz has been Iowa's coach for 25 years. (Ed. note: I looked, and it's only been 16, which is mildly surprising.) But he's never shared a conference with Maryland, so what should the Terps expect systematically out of Ferentz's Hawkeyes?
BHGP: The Terps are coming from a league with one of the few coaches who's been at his job longer than Ferentz (Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech), but yes, Ferentz has been around at Iowa for a long time -- an incredibly long time by the lifespan of most college football coaching gigs. Systematically, I'd say the Terps should expect the same sort of things that Iowa has been doing under Ferentz for a decade and a half at this point -- they haven't really changed too much during his tenure.
On offense, that means a solid dose of running behind a zone blocking scheme to set up the play-action passing game. How Greg Davis' short passing game and horizontal routes fit into that offense is a mystery that Iowa fans, coaches and players are still trying to figure out; by and large, Iowa's offense under Davis has looked its best when it does the same things it was doing before he showed up. On defense, you used to be able to set your watch by the fact that Iowa would line up in 4-3 and play cover-2 to an overwhelming degree. Iowa's still a heavy 4-3 team and they still play a lot of cover-2, but they've changed things up a bit under third-year defensive coordinator Phil Parker. They play a bit more man coverage and cover-1 than they did before and there's more blitzing (particularly from the linebackers out of the 'Raider' package) than Iowa used to do under former coordinator Norm Parker (no relation). But ultimately, Iowa's still mostly doing the same things they've been doing on offense and defense (for good and for ill) for the last 10-15 years.
TT: Is Iowa a classic good-defense, so-so-offense team, or do you see the team getting significantly better or worse on either side of the ball going forward?
BHGP: No, I think that's a pretty fair -- and accurate -- assessment of this Iowa team. They have a good defense (although also one that's occasionally prone to catastrophic mistakes, as was especially evident against Indiana and Tevin Coleman last week), but the offense is fairly inconsistent. I have some optimism that the offense is improving -- it's looked more productive and more explosive over the last three games than it did over the first three games of the season -- but I don't hold out any illusions that this is going to turn into a high-powered offense by the end of the season. Iowa is, has been and will remain a defense-first team -- and that's OK. This defense looks strong enough (especially up front, where the defensive line is gelling into a a really special unit) to hold up against the teams on Iowa's schedule and the offense is gradually improving into a unit good enough to score a reasonable number of points on the teams Iowa's going to face the rest of the way.
TT: Jake Rudock, the Hawkeyes' quarterback, has solid, if not prolific, numbers all the way across the board: 67.5 percent completion rate, 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns against two interceptions. What kind of quarterback will the Terps see on Saturday?
BHGP: Well, you might see two quarterbacks. Iowa found itself embroiled in a quarterback... let's say "situation"... earlier this year when Rudock, the incumbent, struggled in a loss to Iowa State and then got injured a week later against Pitt. His backup, C.J. Beathard, had a strong effort in relief against Pitt (he led Iowa to a 24-20 comeback victory). Rudock was still unable to go against Purdue a week later, which meant more Beathard. His performance in that game wasn't quite as impressive as his relief performance against Pitt, but he did lead Iowa to a win. Rudock healed up over Iowa's bye week and the Iowa coaches made a lot of noise about playing two quarterbacks last week against Indiana. And they did -- but it wasn't any sort of even distribution of snaps. Rudock started and played at least 75% of the game, with Beathard's involvement limited to one series in the first half and a handful of series in the second half, after Iowa had opened up a big lead. That said, the coaches are still making noises about playing both guys and Beathard did run a slightly different package of offensive plays in the Indiana game (there was a lot more option, for one thing), so you certainly might see him on Saturday.
As far as Rudock goes, he's a solid quarterback, but not a particularly dynamic one. He has a high completion percentage, but a fair amount of that is the result of an offensive scheme that calls for a lot of short passes (he's also been happy -- too happy, at times -- to check down to running backs and tight ends). His deep ball is inconsistent, but can be effective when he has adequate time in the pocket (and that's one thing Iowa's been good at for most of this season -- pass protection has been very strong). His decision-making has improved during his tenure as a starter (Saturday will be his 18th start for Iowa) and he rarely makes bad throws or overly risky throws (at times he can be too risk-averse, frankly). Rudock is mobile enough to move around in the pocket and pick up a few yards on the ground if need be, but he's certainly not a huge running threat.
TT: Maryland's run defense has gotten gashed all season, to the tune of 212 ground yards allowed per game. Iowa hasn't run the ball especially well, averaging just 3.8 yards per attempt. Something's got to give here, in theory. What will it be?
BHGP: I certainly hope it's the Maryland run defense, but frankly I'm not sure the Iowa rushing offense has the firepower to exploit Maryland's weak run defense. They've played two of the Big Ten's worst run defenses the last two games and still only mustered 175 yards on 51 carries (3.43 yards per carry) against Purdue and 207 yards on 44 carries (4.70 ypc) against Indiana. The latter figure was goosed by a 60-yard run as well; aside from that run, Iowa ran for 147 yards on 43 carries (3.42 ypc) against the Hoosiers. Iowa's run blocking has been inconsistent all year and while none of the running backs is exceptional, Iowa has some solid options between the bruising Mark Weisman and the shifty Jordan Canzeri. Still, neither the numbers nor the eye test give me a great deal of faith in the Iowa running game having a breakout performance Saturday, even against a Terp defense that's struggled to slow down anyone. I'll be content if the running game can do enough to keep the offense moving and keep the Terp defense honest enough to open up some plays in the passing game.
TT: What can the Iowa secondary to do slow down Maryland's best offensive players: wideouts Stefon Diggs, Deon Long and Marcus Leak?
BHGP: Iowa's three best defensive players are probably on the line -- defensive tackles Louis Trinca-Pasat and Carl Davis and end Drew Ott -- but outside of those big fellas, Iowa's best defensive player is sophomore cornerback Desmond King. King took over as a starter early last season and he's quickly become indispensable to Iowa's secondary. He's an adept defender, capable of playing strong man coverage at times and also dropping into smart zone coverage at other times; he's also generally good about pitching in on run support. Indiana seemed to throw at him quite a bit last week and while they had some success, for the most part it didn't go well, highlighted by a pick-six he snared in the first quarter. The Terps are certainly welcome to try throwing King's way on Saturday... but it may not go very well for them. King's partner in the secondary is Greg Mabin, who was a wide receiver two years ago and is still adjusting to life as a cornerback. He has tremendous physical tools, but he's still learning the tools of the trade on defense.
Teams that have had success passing on Iowa have generally been able to do so by attacking the middle of the field. As noted above, Iowa doesn't leave their 4-3 look very often, which means the linebackers have a fair amount of coverage responsibilities. That worked fine last year, when Iowa had three experienced and talented veteran linebackers, but it's been a little more dodgy this year with much less experienced linebackers patrolling the middle of the field. Iowa's defense has some weaknesses up the seams, on crossing routes and against running backs leaking out of the backfield, so Maryland may want to get creative in how they use Diggs, Long and Leak.
TT: Ultimately, how do you see things shaking out on Saturday?
BHGP: 3-4 weeks ago, I likely would have been much more pessimistic about Iowa's chances of winning this game than I am now. The road comeback at Pitt felt like a big turning point for this team; a loss there might have really unraveled Iowa's season. But the defense came up with a very strong second half and the offense showed some much-needed signs of life. I don't want to read too much into subsequent victories over Purdue and Indiana because the quality of the opposition is certainly a factor, but when Iowa was struggling earlier in the season, they weren't playing lights out opposition, either. There's no question in my mind that Iowa's playing better now than they were at the start of the season, and that's been a very encouraging development.
For whatever reason, Iowa (and Rudock in particular) has actually tended to play better on the road than at home over the last two seasons. They've won five of their last six road games, which includes strong performances in wins over Nebraska, Pitt and Minnesota. Even the lone road loss in that stretch (at Ohio State) was a very credible performance. I think the Iowa running game has some success against the porous Terp defense, which opens up the passing game for a few big plays to Tevaun Smith and Damond Powell. Iowa prevails, 28-17.