Leistikow's 4 thoughts: How Iowa football's defense is preparing for Maryland's Taulia Tagovailoa

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — One of the beauties of college football is its annual unpredictability. What we thought in August can look utterly foolish by late September. 

Scan the preseason all-Big Ten Conference teams, and the first-team quarterback was almost exclusively Michael Penix Jr., who was picked off six times in Indiana’s two biggest games (vs. Iowa and Cincinnati). The league’s other top two QBs were thought to be Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud (who didn’t play Saturday vs. Akron with a shoulder injury) and Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz (who has struggled mightily and threw four interceptions vs. Notre Dame).

It now looks like the best two quarterbacks in the Big Ten are the two that are lined up to face the fifth-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes: Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa and Penn State’s Sean Clifford.

This week, Tagovailoa has Iowa’s full attention in advance of Friday’s 7 p.m. CT game at Capital One Field. The showdown of 4-0 teams will be televised on Fox Sports 1, with Tim Brando and Spencer Tillman again on the call.

The 5-foot-11, 200-pound junior (and younger brother of Miami Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa) has put together sensational numbers in the Terrapins’ 4-0 start. Tagovailoa has completed 111 of 147 passes (a stellar 75.5% completion rate) and leads the Big Ten by a wide margin with 1,340 passing yards. (By comparison, Iowa has 1,172 total yards this season.)

Against three FBS opponents this season, Taulia Tagovailoa of Maryland has thrown for 332, 350 and 384 yards. The Terrapins are fresh off a 37-16 win vs. Kent State.

“He’s his own great player. It goes back to the same way we prepared for a Penix or (Iowa State’s Brock) Purdy, we know what can hurt us," Iowa free safety Jack Koerner said. "We know what their strengths are. And we’ve just got to try to limit them."

Tagovailoa has 10 touchdown passes vs. one interception. He’s a pocket passer, not a runner. Unlike his older brother, he’s right-handed. The arm strength is legit, and he has two excellent receivers at his disposal in NFL Draft prospect Dontay Demus Jr. (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) and Rakim Jarrett (6-0, 190). The pair has combined for 41 catches for 771 yards and six scores, the second-most prolific duo in the country.

“Just their threat of the vertical pass game, that’s going to be a challenge, especially on the linebackers," Nagurski national defensive player of the week Jack Campbell said. "We’re going to have to get in the deeper areas to get underneath those dig routes."

Unlike last week's game against Colorado State, which broke out three- and four-tight end sets, Maryland does offer more "11" personnel — one running back, one tight end, three receivers — that Iowa is accustomed to seeing from teams like Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska.

“If we communicate and play good coverage, we shouldn’t …” Campbell said, seemingly about to say something like “have a problem” before starting a new sentence and saying, “I mean, hopefully, figure something out there.”

Slow starts can be the “gripe of the week” for Iowa’s offense.

I say that half-jokingly, because it’s important to remember that the Hawkeyes’ offense has done enough to win four games by margins of 28, 10, 23 and 10.

But there’s nothing wrong with striving for better. And something Iowa needs to do better on: First-quarter possessions. We remember that Tyler Goodson zipped into the end zone on the fourth offensive play of the season (vs. Indiana). But in the last three games, Iowa’s slow starts have been troubling.

Extracting the first two possessions from Iowa’s last three games delivers totals of 25 snaps for 52 yards (with Spencer Petras is 4-for-11 passing for 27 yards) and zero points.

Oof.

Aren’t these plays scripted? They are, sort of. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz will meet late in the week with Petras (on the pass game) and center Tyler Linderbaum (on the run game) and pluck out what plays they think will work best in the early going. 

“We have what we call openers. It’s not an exact script, because anything can happen. Like if you get to third down, then your script probably has to change," Petras explained. "But our openers are the plays we open with. The order of them can change."

It goes without saying that Iowa would like to start faster. A common theme of the first four games has been that defenses have thrown stuff at Iowa that it didn't see on film and, thus, didn't expect.

"Every week, it feels like we're getting something new, like people are trying to give us something we haven't seen before," wide receiver Nico Ragaini said. "It takes us a second to get locked in, but usually we figure it out and put some points on the board."

So ... how was the offensive-line film room this week?

True freshman Connor Colby, who got his first career start at right guard, said “it wasn’t too hot,” after the Hawkeyes rushed for 54 yards on 32 attempts in a 24-14 win against Colorado State. “I’m just happy the team got a win.”

Linderbaum, the all-American and veteran up front, put a happier spin on the run-game struggles against the Rams.

“I think (the film) was good,” Linderbaum said. “There were a lot of mistakes but the best thing about it is that you can learn from those mistakes. We play an imperfect game.”

Iowa’s lack of experience up front, particularly at tackle, showed up in that game. But there are reinforcements on the way. One positive is that Kyler Schott, a fifth-year senior, continues to build his conditioning and should be in line for more snaps this week against Maryland. Schott will be playing in his third game since a six-week absence after a hay-baling accident.

His tenacity in the run game is something Iowa could use on the Big Ten road. For the season, Iowa's 3.34 yards per carry is tied for 111th in the country.

“Whenever Shooter is in the game, he makes us better,” Linderbaum said. “… It’s good to have him back and getting more reps.”

And then there’s Justin Britt, who started Iowa’s first three games but didn’t play vs. Colorado State due to a knee sprain. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Britt is practicing this week, giving the Hawkeyes a host of guard options at Maryland. Ferentz said he preferred to keep Cody Ince at left guard, where he has started all four games, and would only play right tackle (a trouble spot in the Iowa State and Colorado State games) in an emergency. 

More Schott and more Britt "should help us, but it's not the total answer. We just have to keep getting better, just keep working at it. We (as coaches) have got to provide a little more direction, and maybe a little better scheme. And he have to execute better."

Bring on the Friday-night lights, players say.

A Friday-night game on the East Coast might not seem like a perfect football setting for everybody, but three Hawkeyes who were interviewed Tuesday dig it for various reasons.

Ragaini, who wore a “CT STAND UP” T-shirt to represent his home state of Connecticut, has roughly 40 family and friends making the trip to D.C. Iowa hasn’t had a game with fans farther East than Ann Arbor, Michigan, since the 2019 Outback Bowl.

“I asked everybody for tickets,” Ragaini said. “I’m excited for a lot of Nico fans over there. And Hawkeye fans, of course. They’ll be the loudest, rowdiest people there, too, which is cool.”

And then there’s punter Tory Taylor. The Australian-born punter has a lot of family back home that is excited for the late-night kickoff. Iowa’s usual Saturday 2:30 p.m. CT starts kick off at 5:30 a.m. Sunday in Australia. This game means they can sleep in and turn on the live stream at 10 a.m. Sunday.

“The later we play, the later it is for everyone back home,” Taylor said. “I’m sure everyone back home is looking forward to sleeping. … It’s been a rough time for them.

“I love the night games. It’s just another opportunity we’re all really excited about."

Iowa's running back likes the Friday-night lights, too. The last time Goodson played a Friday-night road game? He unleashed 142 yards and two touchdowns on Minnesota last season in a 35-7 Hawkeye win.

"Fridays tend to be a good day for me," Goodson said. "Credit to the O-line. … I'm looking forward to another Friday game. I think it'll be a fun game and it'll show us what kind of team we are."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.