After cruising to a win over Rutgers and moving to 4-2 this season, Maryland football will have its hands full with Iowa this weekend. The No. 19 Hawkeyes are 5-1 and are built to stop Maryland’s biggest strength, which is an explosive ground game.
To help us get to know Iowa a little better, we brought in Max Brekke from our SB Nation friends at Black Heart Gold Pants. You can follow Max (@GospelOfMax) and the site (@BHGP) on Twitter, and our corresponding Q&A is available right here.
Testudo Times: Iowa is 5-1 and has moved into the top 20 in the AP Poll. How have the early results compared with preseason expectations?
Black Heart Gold Pants: I’m not sure that people thought this team would be as fantastic as they’ve been thus far in 2018, but I will say that the record just about aligns with preseason expectations. Iowa has what’s probably the easiest schedule in the Big Ten (they dodge Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State), so many fans were hyping up a 9-10 win season all summer. Actually, despite preseason expectations being in that range, fans are probably pretty disappointed with the fact that this team is only 5-1 right now, as the Hawks appeared to have Wisconsin dead to rights before their offense turtled and Alex Hornibrook turned in an Orange Bowl-like performance to lead a comeback victory.
As things stand now, 10+ wins certainly looks like the goal for this Iowa team moving forward. The Big Ten West is a dumpster fire, and the biggest remaining game of 2018 is probably in State College against Penn State, who has looked vulnerable in recent weeks. With Wisconsin looking like a lesser team than they were in 2017, there’s still an opportunity for Iowa to head to the Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis, which was what this year’s goal always was.
TT: What have you seen from Nate Stanley in his junior season, and what challenges does he present to a defense?
BHGP: After a sophomore campaign where Stanley threw for 2,500 yards and finished with a ridiculous 25/6 TD to INT ratio, it was expected that while he might improve as a junior, his stat line would be unsustainable. While he’s on pace to throw more interceptions this year, he’s made strides in other areas, most notably completion percentage and yards per attempt — he’s seen a rise from 55.8% to 62.1% in completion percentage from last year, while improving from 6.9 to 8.5 yards per attempt.
What makes him challenging is that he has the tools of a great QB — a good deep ball, generally good decision making, and he has a rocket arm. While he’s made some poor decisions that have led to his higher INT total in 2018, he generally has been able to put the ball in a place that only his receivers can get to it, particularly when he’s going deep. Something else that’s been fun to watch, particularly this past week, is that he’s so big bodied at 6’5” and 240 pounds that opposing teams have a hard time bringing him down in the backfield and he’s been able to extend plays after it looked like a sure sack.
TT: Iowa’s top two receivers are both tight ends in T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant. What makes those guys so dangerous, and how are they different from each other?
BHGP: What makes them so dangerous is that they’re total mismatches for opposing defenses. Both have really good speed for their size, so it’s hard for linebackers to cover them, but they’re still too big for defensive backs to cover effectively. I suppose another thing that makes them so dangerous is that Nate Stanley LOVES throwing it to ‘em — how many teams do you know that put such an emphasis on tight ends that they could have two go for 100+ yards and at least a TD in a game?
The biggest difference comes from the way Iowa utilizes these two guys. Noah Fant is certainly the more naturally athletic of the two, so they like to set him in motion, use him over the top, and if a tight end is split out wide, it’s probably him. Hockenson sees more snaps, but it’s because he’s as steady of a blocker as they come. Stanley loves to go to him on third down and he can break one, too, but his steadiness is what stands out.
TT: What makes Iowa’s defense as effective as it’s been this season?
BHGP: It all begins in the trenches, where Iowa has an incredibly deep front four this year. Iowa has had to replace three multi-year starters at linebacker in 2018, and has dealt with their fair share of the injury bug there and at cornerback early in the season, but the defensive line has made it pretty easy on everyone so far. Behind the usual starters, Iowa has four more guys that they’re comfortable trotting out, including former five-star recruit and pass-rusher extraordinaire A.J. Epenesa. The DL unit hasn’t given QBs much time to throw the ball, registering 17 sacks as a group, and have been instrumental in keeping teams from running successfully.
TT: How would winning or losing this game change the outlook of Iowa’s season going forward?
BHGP: Oh boy. While Maryland doesn’t look like it’ll be the pushover that Minnesota and Indiana were the previous two weeks, it’ll be a real gut punch for the Hawkeye faithful if Iowa loses this game. After seeing a much improved team in all facets since the Wisconsin loss, there have been murmurs of how special this team could be and comparisons to Iowa’s 2009 Orange Bowl Champions team. I think a lot of Iowa fans are honestly overlooking Maryland this week and thinking ahead to the showdown against Penn State, so if the Hawks were to drop this one, it’d really deflate the fan base and a lot of folks would start considering 2018 a lost season.
TT: What do you think would have to happen for Maryland to pull off the upset here?
BHGP: I think the key for Maryland is to make something happen in the passing game on offense and to take away Iowa’s passing game on defense. While I realize that Maryland has been wholly ineffective through the air so far in 2018, they’re going to need to show something in order to make something happen on the ground against what’s been a stout front seven for the Hawkeyes this season. Iowa is only allowing 80 rushing yards per game on 2.7 yards per rush, so if Maryland can’t use the passing game enough to keep the Hawkeyes honest, I don’t see a scenario where Ty Johnson and Co. are enough to keep the Terps in this game.
On the other side of the ball, Iowa’s been uncharacteristically average running the ball this season, averaging just 3.9 yards per carry (they average 155 YPG, but on 40 carries, as is The Iowa Way™️). With that in mind, Maryland will need to find a way to stymie Nate Stanley and the aforementioned tight ends. Stanley’s thrown for 300+ yards in three of Iowa’s last four contests and looks to be gaining rhythm, so if the Iowa passing attack is able to get into a groove early, it could mean trouble for the Terps.