When the Iowa Hawkeyes take to the Byrd Stadium turf on Saturday, they'll bring with them one of the more impressive defensive pedigrees in college football. Under coordinator Phil Parker, the Hawkeyes have allowed 19.2 points per game (19th in the nation) and 331 total yards per game (26th), including 200 passing (24th) and 130 rushing (40th). Given that balance, the Terrapins will need both creativity and execution to score points on Saturday.
Maligned for much of the season's first half, C.J. Brown will look to turn a corner in his seventh start. Like Iowa, Maryland's running game has struggled, and the Iowa defense doesn't make a habit of being gashed on the ground. Brown's arm could be the game's decisive factor, and he'll need big outings from his best wide receivers.
Enter Iowa cornerback Desmond King, who had a 35-yard interception return for a touchdown last weekend against Indiana. King is the Hawkeyes' best corner and one of the better coverage men in the Big Ten. Maryland hasn't seen many defensive backs capable of covering Stefon Diggs or Deon Long in man coverage, but there is a strong chance to find out on Saturday if King can do just that.
"Very aggressive corner," Maryland offensive coordinator Mike Locksley called King. "He's a guy that is very aggressive outside on the edge. He'll take some chances and plays really smart."
If King can successfully contain one of those receivers by himself, he'll free up Iowa safeties John Lowdermilk and Jordan Lomax to play the outfield or shift to other targets. With Brown, not a downfield thrower by trade, under center for Maryland, that would spell trouble for the Terps' passing game.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see them try to lock him on some of our better receivers and allow him to play some man because he has the skill set to do that, which allows the safety to rotate and help somewhere else," Locksley said.
Iowa's other starting cornerback, Greg Mabin, is a converted wide receiver who isn't as polished as King, so perhaps the Terps will throw at him instead of King.
Anyone is beatable, but King's matchup against either Diggs or Long would be one of the game's most consequential.
At the line of scrimmage, Iowa's overall pass-rush has produced a middling sack total. The Hawkeyes, working out of a 4-3 base defense, have combined for 14 sacks in six games, ranking them 52nd nationally (and just one sack behind Maryland's defense).
Iowa's defensive linemen aren't slouches, though: End Drew Ott has 4.5 sacks, and tackles Louis Trinca-Pasat and Carl Davis are effective on the interior. Maryland's offensive line had a good look at arguably the best set of four down linemen in the country against Ohio State and got destroyed. Iowa's line likely isn't that good, but it's still plenty solid. The Terps' linemen have all started every game together, and they'll need to raise their level of play against Iowa.
"They're good up front. They've got a good D-line, a solid linebacker corps," center Sal Conaboy said. "We're going to have to bring our A-game this week, definitely, up front. They don't do anything crazy; they just play hard-nosed football."
In the running game, the Terps have struggled, averaging just four yards per attempt in the first six contests. Mostly, coaches and players attribute their challenges to simple execution, but Conaboy was a bit more specific on Wednesday, saying Maryland's linemen need to stick to blockers longer to give the running backs space.
"Staying on blocks is definitely something that we've been working on, and that's something that Iowa's defensive line does very well. That was a point of emphasis for us," Conaboy said.
Running back Brandon Ross emphasized similar fundamentals.
"We definitely feel that we're going to have to play at a lower pad level," Ross said, adding, "When we do run the ball, it's up the backs to find a hole and least get four yards, keep us on track."
It isn't a new adage that running and passing success are intertwined, but it's particularly apt for Maryland right now. The Terps have managed fine point totals this year – 35 points per game on average – but only sporadically clicked aerially and on the ground at once. If the running game stays stifled, defenses will pack the secondary against Brown. If Brown misses throws, the path forward for Ross and Maryland's runners – the quarterback included – is murky.
"I think any time you can get the run game going, it's going to put more pressure on the defense and open up the pass game," Brown said. "A lot of guys are sitting back in the pass game with our receivers and getting the five-man box to pound the ball. It will definitely be something we have an emphasis on, and that falls on me.I have to be able to run the ball better, too."