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Iowa excels at stopping the thing Maryland’s good at. How’s that gonna turn out?

Can Maryland find ways to create big plays against a team that is great at stopping them? If not, can the Terps succeed in other ways?

maryland football-iowa-game-preview-stats-game-time Art Pittman-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland football takes a trip to Iowa City on Saturday to play the Iowa Hawkeyes in a tough cross-divisional game. Iowa is No. 19 in the AP Poll, making the Hawkeyes the third ranked team on Maryland’s schedule this year. S&P+ has them 21st and as the second-toughest opponent the Terps have faced behind Michigan (yes, that means ahead of Texas).

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Maryland needs big plays to survive.

This has been the story of Maryland’s offense for the past few seasons: big plays have to get the Terps into the end zone, because methodical drives usually won’t. These big plays can come through the air or on the ground, but the latter has been more frequent and reliable for the Terps. They rank third in rushing marginal explosiveness, Bill Connelly’s stat that aims to estimate how well a team can produce big plays (deeper explanation here), but place 61st in rushing marginal efficiency, which calculates how good a team is at sustaining drives with consistent gains. Maryland ranks 14th in passing explosiveness and 128th in passing efficiency, per those same stats.

Basically, Maryland’s offense usually needs multiple plays like this to have a shot at an upset:

If those don’t come, scoring opportunities become rare.

These metrics are complicated by the fact that Maryland often simply avoids passing the ball for long stretches of time. Facing Matt Canada’s Maryland offense, with pre-snap motions like the one that helped spring Ty Johnson free on that run above, is not totally dissimilar to playing an option team.

“It’s not like playing Georgia Tech, exactly, but there’s some parallels, primarily their strength is in running the football,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz noted to reporters this week. “When they throw it, they tend to be real big plays. I think the parallel to Georgia Tech is there’s just a lot of things going on.”

Johnson, Anthony McFarland and Tayon Fleet-Davis average 8.1, 8.9 and 5.0 yards per carry. When Maryland’s offensive line can get them the first few yards, these backs can often take care of the rest.

Iowa’s defense is is more or less an Iowa Defense.

A couple things that means:

  • The Hawkeyes often play with three linebackers and four linemen even when offenses trot out three wide receivers, a rarity as most teams go with nickel alignments that swap out a linebacker for a defensive back who can play the run and the pass.
  • The front four is a bunch of experienced upperclassmen and some talented youngsters.
  • This defense is good. It ranks 19th in S&P+, and aside from a weird and slightly deceiving game against Minnesota, hasn’t allowed anyone to score 30 or more points.
  • Iowa’s lockdown pass defense has been better than its run defense, but the run defense matches up in ways Maryland probably wishes it didn’t:

Iowa is great at preventing big plays, especially on the ground.

The Hawkeyes’ highest ranking in any of Bill C.’s advanced stats is their No. 1 spot in rushing marginal efficiency allowed. Iowa succeeds in consuming opposing offenses by refusing to allow big plays and forcing teams to methodically march down the field.

Maryland’s offense vs. Iowa’s defense

RUSHING Stat Offense Rk Defense Rk
RUSHING Stat Offense Rk Defense Rk
RUSHING Marginal efficiency* -6.10% 61 -6.70% 82
RUSHING Marginal explosiveness* 0.29 3 -0.39 1
RUSHING Opportunity rate* 48.90% 43 47.60% 85
RUSHING Stuff rate* 19.20% 74 12.60% 125
PASSING Marginal efficiency* -13.30% 128 -9.10% 7
PASSING Marginal explosiveness* 45.70% 14 -1.20% 18
PASSING Passing completion rate* 53.40% 112 62.10% 92
PASSING Sack rate* 8.60% 103 9.80% 14

Given that Maryland’s ability to muster long drives is among the worst in the country (the Terps rank 118th in offensive marginal efficiency), that would seem to spell trouble. It’s still possible Maryland succeeds by rotating between Johnson, McFarland and Fleet-Davis, keeping them all fresh and able to outrun tired defenders late. But it won’t be easy.

Will Maryland be able to find success in other areas?

The Terps have difficulties getting to manageable third-down situations, as they face an average third-down distance of 8.7 yards. That ranks 122nd in the country. Once they get backed up in obvious passing downs, they haven’t been able to course-correct, and have been the third-worst team in the country at converting third-and-longs, per Bill C.’s third-and-long success rate metric.

Iowa doesn’t do a great job stopping short gainers on the ground, ranking 82nd in rushing marginal efficiency allowed and 125th in stuff rate, which measures a defense’s success at tackling defenders at or behind the line of scrimmage. Maryland’s offense is 61st in the former and 74th in the latter, so it will have to step it up a little to give QBs Kasim Hill and Tyrrell Pigrome the best chances to help convert. That’s on the playcaller, the offensive line, and everyone involved on offense.

Putting Hill in positions where the defense doesn’t know he’s going to pass and keeping him upright once he’s there would go a long way in creating drives. But doing that against a top-20 defense after not succeeding against teams with much worse units is going to be hard.