Brown: Three big-play reasons Iowa can beat Maryland
IOWA CITY, Ia. – There is always a tipping point, that moment when a guy becomes the guy.
Tevaun Smith, Damond Powell and Jonathan Parker have all taken that leap. And a team sorely in need of offensive playmakers earlier this season now has three of them.
The Hawkeyes' so-so offense had a coming-out party in a 45-29 victory against Indiana Saturday. Granted, a Hoosier team has not been ranked in the Top 70 nationally in total defense for the last 15 seasons, and this year's version is now 79th.
But with the help of Smith, Powell and Parker, Iowa has dusted off the vertical passing (and rushing) game that was absent for most of the non-conference season. Keeping them in the game plan is mandatory if the Hawkeyes are to challenge for the Big Ten's West Division title.
The second half of Iowa's schedule begins Saturday at Maryland (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten). Iowa could legitimately win all six games. Or lose five of six, the likely exception Nov. 15 at Illinois. Having playmakers makes every game more winnable.
And if Derrick Willies can make it a foursome, that's even better. The red-shirt freshman wide receiver missed the Indiana game with an undisclosed injury.
Stretching the field has already started paying dividends with the running game. Thanks in part to eight passing plays that went for at least 10 yards, Iowa enjoyed its best rushing day of the season Saturday with 207 yards. That was the Hawkeyes' highest total in 10 games.
Smith's breakout game came against Michigan last season, when he turned a one-handed catch into a 55-yard third-quarter touchdown that sparked Iowa's come-from-behind 24-21 victory. Powell said hello for the first time last season with a 74-yard TD on a tunnel screen at Minnesota.
And Parker recorded his first touchdown Saturday on a 60-yard run out of a jet sweep. He's also showing value as kick returner. Powell also had a 72-yard touchdown reception against the Hoosiers, and Smith had four catches for 69 yards.
Compare that to the only loss of the season, to Iowa State. Smith had four catches for 34 yards in that 20-17 defeat. Powell had no catches. Parker, who fumbled twice the previous week against Ball State, didn't play.
All three came to Iowa lightly recruited. Smith, a Canadian, played a season at the Kent School, a prep school in Connecticut, hoping someone would find him. Iowa out-recruited Connecticut, Temple and Syracuse for him.
Powell came from Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, where he led the nation with an average of 30 yards per catch. His only other offer came from Ohio University. Powell is averaging 26.9 yards on his nine catches this season.
As a senior at Christian Brothers High School in St Louis. Mo., Parker was committed to Tulsa until he made a visit to Iowa the weekend before National Signing Day in 2012.
If all three can make an impact Saturday against a Maryland team that ranks 99th in total defense, Iowa (5-1, 2-0 Big Ten) will become bowl eligible for the 12th time in 16 seasons under coach Kirk Ferentz.
It would also help if a defense that got scorched by Indiana Saturday to the tune of 316 yards on the ground can bounce back. Tevin Coleman's 219 yards helped drop Iowa from seventh to 40th nationally in rush defense.
The good news is that Maryland is just 94th in rushing at 140.3 yards. But after this trip to College Park, there are a lot of West Division backs like Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin, Ameer Abdullah of Nebraska and David Cobb of Minnesota who will be trying to follow in Coleman's footsteps.
When Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfeld was knocked out of the game early in the second quarter, he took the Hoosiers' passing game with him. Now comes Maryland and its 259.3 yards passing a game.
At least Iowa has shown it can counter with some playmakers. At least three of them.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow @ByRickBrown on Twitter.