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Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa helped lead the Hawkeyes' 23-0 shutout of Maryland. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — When opponents have faced third-and-long this season, Iowa has consistently deployed a front of four defensive ends.

No tackles are needed when you have four ends who can attack the backfield.

Parker Hesse, Anthony Nelson, A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston showed why defensive end is No. 22 Iowa’s deepest position group in Saturday’s 23-0 punishment of Maryland before 69,250 at Kinnick Stadium.

Against a Terrapins offense that features deception and motion, it’s up to the ends to play assignment football. They sure did Saturday.

“We’re just doing our job," Hesse said simply. "That’s what it comes down to.”

Hesse showed up early by clocking speedy running back Anthony McFarland for a 4-yard loss, then bulldozed Kasim Hill for a 7-yard sack to end the third quarter.

Nelson had the big play of the game, but perhaps the easiest — pouncing on a loose ball in the end zone for the Hawkeyes’ first defensive touchdown of 2018. His recovery of Tyrrell Pigrome’s unforced fumble pushed Iowa’s lead to 23-0 late in the third quarter.

Epenesa and Golston, the backups, didn’t even play until the second quarter. But Golston knifed into the backfield to trip up McFarland for a 5-yard loss in the third quarter. And Epenesa ended up with two tackles for loss, including his team-high sixth sack of the season.

“I think this showed the depth that we have," Epenesa said. "Whenever me and Chauncey go in, we can be as productive as Parker and Anthony are. And I think we tried to show that a little bit today, making some plays on the outside and hustling to the ball.”

RELATED: Miguel Recinos, Brandon Smith keep calm in windy win for Hawkeyes

Epenesa contended he should've had two sacks Saturday; an earlier crunching of Hill was ruled an incomplete pass, but he thought it should've been a sack-fumble. That motivated him to sack Hill on the game's final play, an emphatic punctuation in holding the Terrapins to 115 yards.

“I thought I had (a sack) earlier in the game, but I was told that they called it incomplete. I don’t understand how it was incomplete," Epenesa said. "I was like, ‘I’ve got to get one.’"

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Improbable? Sure. Worth mentioning? Of course. The Hawkeyes (6-1, 3-1) are among the three Big Ten teams realistically alive for the College Football Playoff.

Preseason hopefuls Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin had two losses by the halfway mark. They’re done.

Only second-ranked Ohio State (which played Purdue later) entered Saturday with an unbeaten record, and only Michigan (which beat Michigan State) and Iowa have one loss.

According to ESPN before Saturday’s games, Iowa had a 2 percent chance of making the playoff. The Hawkeyes obviously cannot afford to lose again, but if they run the regular-season table, advance to the Big Ten Conference championship game and then win in Indianapolis to move to 12-1, they would have a strong case. That same ESPN analysis said a 12-1 Iowa in that circumstance would have a 66 percent chance of making the playoff — although it’s hard to imagine the Big Ten being frozen out of the semifinals for the second straight year.

In my opinion, Iowa is about to enter its most challenging three-game stretch of the season: at Penn State, at Purdue, then home against Northwestern in a key Big Ten West game. Win those three, and we can talk more realistically about a playoff push.

It’s almost been a year since an Iowa running back lost a fumble.

The Hawkeyes’ all-sophomore backfield continues to be a model of ball security. It’s impressive to watch how cognizant Ivory Kelly-Martin, Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young are with the football. They absorb tough hits, but so far — they’ve yet to put the ball on the ground in 2018.

Kelly-Martin posted career highs of 24 carries and 98 yards on the ground. Sargent had 10 rushes for 54 yards; Young carried nine times for 21 yards.

For the season, the trio has zero fumbles in 229 attempts.

So, when was the last time an Iowa running back lost a fumble? It was against Minnesota on Oct. 28, 2017, when a replay official infamously ruled that James Butler had fumbled just before halftime.

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Speaking of incredible stats: Iowa wasn't penalized in a game for the first time in more than 12 years.

You would assume playing disciplined football was preached all week after the Hawkeyes committed 11 penalties for 110 yards at Indiana. Message received.

No penalties for the first time since a Sept. 30, 2006, home loss to No. 1 Ohio State. 

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After back-to-back 300-yard games, Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley was forced to play it close to the vest in a 23-0 rout of Maryland. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

Credit to Nick Easley for maybe one of the game’s most under-appreciated plays.

The wide receiver made a fantastic catch on fourth-and-2 in the first quarter when it felt like Iowa desperately needed a play in the passing game.

Nate Stanley had been intercepted on the first drive, a poor decision by the junior quarterback. And now the Hawkeyes were driving again, and in jeopardy of missing out on points … again. Stanley’s throw on an out pass was well behind Easley, but the sure-handed senior contorted his body, made the catch, broke a tackle and gained 12 yards.

Iowa settled for the first of three Miguel Recinos field goals, but it was important to get some points instead of no points early on a windy day.

Did you see that quarterback draw coming? Neither did anyone else.

Great call, great execution as Stanley rumbled up the middle for 13 yards on third-and-9 in the final moments of the first half set up Iowa’s lone first-half touchdown. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz snickered after being asked about it, noting he wasn't so sure about the play call.

"That's something we actually put in this week," Ferentz revealed, "and it proved very beneficial for us."

It was a career-long rush for the Hawkeyes’ 242-pound quarterback, topping his previous best of 11 yards.

The backup QB got the call with 8:47 remaining.

With a 23-point lead, the Hawkeyes put Peyton Mansell in the game to run the first-team offense. Nothing wrong with Stanley, just getting the redshirt freshmen some reps. Mansell misfired on his only attempt (to Noah Fant) and scrambled three times for 17 yards to burn some clock.

"We wanted to get him in there and get him a couple snaps," Ferentz said, "and we were still planning on keeping the ball on the ground for the most part."

True freshman Spencer Petras also got his first snaps of the season; two of them. He threw incomplete into the end zone on fourth-and-3 with just over a minute left.

Nothing to sneeze at: Bowl eligibility is official.

Iowa will be headed to its 16th bowl in 18 years in a few months. That was guaranteed Saturday, with five regular-season games to go. Ferentz noted that in his opening statement.

"It's significant," Ferentz said, "and just we never want to take that for granted."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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