Hawkeye football mailbag: Iowa's rolling offense may face an unlikely adversary Saturday

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The high-flying Iowa passing offense is one storyline. The big-play Maryland rushing offense is another. But … why not much discussion about how Saturday’s weather forecast will affect both in Iowa City?

A good question, one of many we had during Wednesday’s most-trafficked Hawk Central Facebook Live session since Cy-Hawk week.

There’s obvious excitement about the Hawkeyes, who are off to a 5-1 start (2-1 in the Big Ten Conference) and No. 22 USA TODAY Coaches' Poll ranking at the season’s halfway point.

But predicted 25 mph northwest winds Saturday — with gusts from 30-40 mph — could indeed hamper an Iowa aerial attack averaging 296.7 yards a game in conference play.

Anthony McFarland, right, is averaging 8.9 yards per carry and is one of three Maryland running backs who have topped 100 rushing yards in a game this season.

In contrast, Maryland (4-2, 2-1) is averaging just 8.7 completions and 91.7 passing yards a game in league play.

This is a run-heavy team. And a team that runs the ball effectively — as Maryland does, at more than 6.0 yards per carry, compared with Iowa’s 3.9 — is less affected by windy conditions.

Add to that fact that Maryland ranks second nationally with 12 interceptions and fifth in turnover margin, and there could be lots of uncertainty whenever the Hawkeyes put the ball in the air.

Those expected weather conditions are probably a big reason Iowa had dropped from a betting favorite of 13½ points to 9½ points by Wednesday afternoon.

A ball-control, one-possession game could be in the offing.

If you’re reading this and getting nervous, a few comforting counterpoints:

  • The last time Iowa played in heavy winds? Nate Stanley was just fine, completing 13 of 20 passes for 192 yards in a 56-14 thrashing at Nebraska.
  • If the Hawkeyes can build an early double-digit lead, as they have the past two weeks, perhaps Maryland becomes the team that must go to the windy air more often. Advantage, Iowa.
  • And a wild card: The new north end zone construction, a steep and towering structure, might help reduce the effect of winds coming from that direction. That remains to be seen, er, felt.

Other stuff that cropped up Wednesday:

TOPIC: Is Iowa’s run game ready for a breakout?

That would be a good thing, given the weather forecast. And Iowa does expect running back Ivory Kelly-Martin (concussion) to return after he missed the Indiana game.

This answer really depends on how the Terrapins choose to play defensively. Stacking the run and blitzing didn’t benefit Minnesota and Indiana; both teams got burned by Iowa’s passing game.

Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz will play matchups. I do think, in general, rushing yards will be tough to come by against a Terrapins defense that Iowa players described as one of the most physical they’ll face all year.

But Iowa is due for at least one long-gainer by a running back. Only one of the combined 186 carries by Kelly-Martin, Toren Young and Mekhi Sargent has popped for 20-plus yards this season.

TOPIC: Has the Hawkeye offense arrived?

Iowa has gained 400-plus yards for four straight games for the first time since 2014.

I’m going to say yes, it’s for real. The Hawkeyes have a fantastic quarterback, ditto on the offensive line and two of the country's best tight ends.

But I’ll also add that Saturday presents one of their toughest remaining tests.

The Terrapins boast the Big Ten’s third-ranked defense — behind Michigan and Iowa. They rank 18th nationally in total defense, which is one spot better than the best of Iowa’s previous six opponents (Iowa State, 19th — and the Hawkeyes were held to 271 yards and 13 points against the Cyclones).

If the Hawkeyes can get to 400 yards for a fifth straight week, it’s mostly downhill from there. After Penn State next week, four of the Big Ten’s five worst defenses comprise Iowa’s November schedule.

TOPIC: How much will the Jordan McNair/D.J. Durkin situation affect Maryland?

True, the Maryland Board of Regents meets Friday — although it’s unclear whether the status of Durkin, who is accused of overseeing a program of abuse prior to the offensive lineman’s death in June, will be decided then.

It’s an ugly situation. But I don’t think there will be much impact on Saturday’s game, whether there’s a decision to reinstate Durkin, or fire him, or nothing.

Friday will begin a business trip for the Terrapins coaches and their 70 or so traveling players. Interim coach Matt Canada has done a solid job of keeping this program together. Maryland is responsible for No. 8 Texas’ lone loss and, coming off a 34-7 rout of Rutgers, certainly isn’t playing like a fractured team.

TOPIC: Which underclassmen could Iowa lose early to the NFL?

It's too early to worry about that stuff. My advice: Enjoy the time these guys are here. And remember that every program with NFL talent deals with this issue.

Junior tight end Noah Fant is the most obvious candidate to leave early. He has a unique skill set and off-the-charts measurables that will dazzle the NFL Scouting Combine, whenever he attends.

A college player must be three years removed from high school before entering the NFL Draft. Other draft-eligible Hawkeyes playing at a high level would include Stanley, tight end T.J. Hockenson, defensive end Anthony Nelson and safety Amani Hooker.

It’s unlikely any of those guys would leave early without a first- or second-round NFL Draft grade — like Josh Jackson and James Daniels got last year in late December. That was the first time in the Kirk Ferentz era that Iowa lost two juniors to the NFL.

So yes, times are changing. It's a topic that isn't ready to be answered yet, but it won't go away.