IOWA CITY – Midterm exams are underway all over the Iowa campus this week, including on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium where Maryland’s unique offensive approach will test the Hawkeye defense.
The test will be as much mental as it will be physical for Iowa in its 11 a.m. match-up with the Terrapins, who thrive on the ground but have made their passes count.
Interim coach Matt Canada’s team has attempted a Big Ten-low 118 passes this season, but have complemented their rushing average of 245.2 yards per game with big play after big play.
Only one of Maryland’s four touchdowns in a 34-29 win that is the only blemish on seventh-rated Texas’ record came on plays of fewer than 20 yards.
On their way to a 4-2 start, the Terrapins have scored 14 touchdowns on plays of 20 yards or more.
Coach Kirk Ferentz compares the challenge the 19th-rated Hawkeyes face this week to the one faced by Iowa’s 2009 team when it faced Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack in the Orange Bowl.
“When they throw it, they tend to be real big plays,’’ Ferentz said. “I think the parallel to Georgia Tech is that there are just a lot of things going on. It’s a really important week for us, mentally.’’
Unlike that Georgia Tech game, when then-defensive coordinator Norm Parker had a month to prepare, current defensive coordinator Phil Parker has a week to make his plan work.
“It’s going to take a good week of preparation on our part,’’ Ferentz said.
Maryland’s use of motion and misdirection to keep defenses off balance has the attention of the Iowa defense.
“They’re really good at making you pay for your mistakes,’’ senior defensive end Parker Hesse said. “It comes down to playing assignment football. That’s something we have to do an exceptional job with this week.’’
“They do a good job of finding the guy who is out of position and are capable of turning it into a foot race,’’ Hesse said. “They run away from everybody and that’s not the game we want to play.’’
Maryland quarterback Kasim Hill will hand the ball off frequently to senior Ty Johnson and redshirt freshman Andrew McFarland and they average 8.1 and 8.9 yards per carry, respectively.
“Those are crazy numbers, but they catch your attention, tell you what they are capable of doing,’’ linebacker Djimon Colbert said.
The shifts and motions built into the Terrapins’ attack have provided them with room to run, creating misdirection that distracts defenders and creates offensive opportunities.
“It’s a well thought-out scheme,’’ free safety Jake Gervase said. “It’s something that we haven’t seen this season and it is forcing us to focus this week on being really assignment sound. That’s a requirement.’’
Working behind an offensive line Ferentz rates as one of the biggest Iowa will face this season, Maryland has quickness at the skill positions.
“The thing that jumps out at you is how many big plays come out of what they do,’’ Ferentz said. “If our guys aren’t on the same page, communicating well, you open the door for some really big plays. That’s the danger when you play these guys.’’
This test is different, but Iowa defenders have developed a cohesion that has worked during the Hawkeyes’ 5-1 start.
Rotating eight players on the defensive front, using five different starting combinations at linebacker and two different set-ups in the secondary, Iowa has thrived defensively.
The Hawkeyes rank second in Big Ten in rushing defense and total defense, allowing 81.5 of the 282 they are giving up per game on the ground.
Iowa surrenders only 2.7 yards per carry, a number that ranks fifth in the nation, and only Alabama, Auburn and North Carolina State match the four rushing touchdowns the Hawkeyes have given up this season.
“When you keep your eyes on the right spot, good things will happen,’’ Colbert said. “Every opponent is a little different, but we’ve been able to do our jobs, no matter who is in the lineup. We haven’t let people get much going against us on the ground. That’s something we take a lot of pride in.’’
The Hawkeyes expect to be tested this week, but they welcome that opportunity.
“The objective doesn’t change. We’ll read our keys and run to the football, those are the constants,’’ Gervase said. “The guys up front are doing a great job of reading their keys, taking on blocks and that allows the guys on the back end to come in and make plays.’’