Saturday's win against Iowa was significant for the Maryland football team in a couple of ways. It pulled the Terps to 2-1 in conference play and 5-2 overall, instantly making a seven- or eight-win season seem perfectly feasible. It fell on homecoming in College Park and was a nice uplifter for the campus community. And it was the first big-time Big Ten win for Randy Edsall's program. Simply having beaten Indiana was never going to earn the Terps much respect on its own. This game was a perceptive step forward for the program.
What we saw last week:
- Dominance on the lines. If you were ticking off all the ways Maryland could have beaten Iowa, you'd have never, ever guessed it would have been physical domination along the line of scrimmage – but that's exactly what happened. Iowa's beefy offensive line couldn't stave off four- and five-man rushes from the Terps' front seven or, for the most part, open up holes on run plays. When the Terps were on offense, their maligned linemen stepped up in a big way, creating lanes for runners and usually giving ample time to Maryland quarterbacks C.J. Brown and Perry Hills.
- Excellence in downfield blocking. Everyone knows Stefon Diggs can catch footballs and run fast. This year, he's gotten a lot better in a less sexy but often equally important skill: downfield blocking. On Jacquille Veii's first-half touchdown run from 23 yards out, Diggs sprung Veii by working over Iowa cornerback Desmond King near the left sideline. King would have had a reasonable shot at corralling Veii for a short gain, but Diggs more or less took him out of the play altogether with some aggressive, hands-on blocking. Marcus Leak had a beautiful block, too, when he tossed King backward to seal Diggs' 53-yard score on a screen pass from Hills. It was a challenging afternoon for King, obviously. Programming-wise, we hope to have a little more on this topic soon.
- Hills' homecoming return. In the most ideal of situations, Hills wouldn't have seen the field at all for Maryland this year. He is, after all, the Terps' third-string quarterback, so any action he sees can only come after injuries or poor play from C.J. Brown and Caleb Rowe. On Saturday, with both hurt, Hills entered the game for Brown to start Maryland's second drive of the second half. From the shadow of his own goalposts, Hills threw three passes: incomplete, incomplete, incomplete. After King muffed the ensuing Nathan Renfro punt and Anthony Nixon fell on it, Hills took the field again. Three plays, punt. But Hills settled in a little bit and got the ball to Diggs on a screen to set up the long touchdown. Hills hung in over five drives and kept Maryland in position to win the game, two years almost to the day after tearing his ACL on Homecoming 2012.
- A rush defense reprisal. The Terps held the Hawkeyes to 116 rushing yards on 31 carries, a 3.7-yard team average. That's a great performance, but then again, the Hawkeyes only averaged 3.8 yards per attempt coming in to the afternoon. As good as the Terps were, Iowa isn't a dynamic rush offense, even despite a meaty, athletic offensive line. Want to see a real rushing game? Watch Wisconsin. The Badgers average 343 yards per game and a downright inhumane 7.4 yards per carry. The Terrapins will not hold the Badgers to anything near what they did Iowa, but if they can keep running back Melvin Gordon and company reasonably in check, they'll have a chance.
- Protection for Brown. Iowa sacked Maryland quarterbacks four times and forced C.J. Brown to scramble for yardage on a handful of plays. Even with that knowledge, it certainly didn't feel like Iowa had Brown (or Hills) under consistent duress. Iowa blitzed between three and five men for much of the afternoon, and the Terps' offensive line only really buckled at the very beginning of the game. Wisconsin is third in the Big Ten in sacks, averaging 3.17 per game. The Wisconsin football program has garnered a reputation as a breeding ground for monstrous linemen (on both sides of the ball). The Terps' front will have its hands full.
- A splash on special teams. Other than the ceaselessly brilliant Brad Craddock, Maryland's special teams have cooled off recently. It's not that they've been bad, because they're still fourth nationally in ESPN's special teams efficiency. But Andre Powell's unit got three kick blocks, a punt return touchdown and a few huge kickoff returns in the first four games of the year. In the last three, other than Craddock making everything he kicks, the Terps' special teams haven't made game-altering plays. Part of that is beyond the special teams' control: kickoffs get blasted through the end zone for touchbacks, and punts come down near the Maryland goal line in a hard-to-return spot. But the Terps' kickoff coverage has had noticeable containment problems after a strong start, and the onside kick hands team let Iowa recover one of two such attempts on Saturday. It's been a while since Maryland's special teams have made a serious splash. Here's betting they'll need one from somewhere to win at Camp Randall Stadium.