Two factors will determine Iowa's success at Maryland
COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Defense and special teams. That's what you need to keep an eye on when Iowa visits Maryland for Saturday's pivotal Big Ten football game.
A victory, and Iowa leaves Byrd Stadium with more than bowl eligibility. It also would make a statement that the West Division title will have to go through Kinnick Stadium in November. A loss, and the margin for error takes a hit.
If the Hawkeyes come to play on defense and can keep the Terrapins' kick returners under wraps, this could be a productive trip. Easier said than done.
Maryland has scored at least 24 points in each of its first six games, the first time that's happened in school history. Iowa's defense, stung by an Indiana ground game that dropped the Hawkeyes from seventh to 40th nationally in rush defense, faces a different challenge.
Terrapins quarterback C.J. Brown is a run-pass threat, something Iowa has struggled to handle during the Kirk Ferentz coaching regime. Brown is no Braxton Miller, but he's dangerous. So are the Terrapins' receiving corps, led by Stefon Diggs. He's accounted for 36 catches and 450 yards.
Diggs also is a cog on Maryland's potent special teams units. He's averaging 24.4 yards on 10 kickoff returns. Iowa's Marshall Koehn, who is second nationally in touchback percentage (77.4), might be Iowa's best defense.
Maryland has another weapon in punt returner William Likely. He's averaged 22 yards on eight returns. So the Hawkeyes' special teams unit, which continues to struggle when it comes to recovering on-side kicks, will have to be at their best.
"Both those guys are really dynamic returners," Ferentz said of Diggs and Likely. "So we're going to have to be at our best on special teams to have a chance to get this thing done."
Maryland also has a point producer in placekicker Brad Craddock. He's perfect in 11 field-goal attempts, including a 57-yarder against Ohio State.
The Terrapins' defense provides Iowa's offense a chance to continue to build some mid-season momentum. Both West Virginia and Ohio State have come to Byrd Stadium and won this season, scoring 40 and 52 points, respectively.
A win, and Iowa heads into its second bye week a step closer to a special season. Keep improving, Ferentz said, and "we'll have a chance to have a good football team. And if not, we'll either be mediocre or bad."
If the defense and special teams are mediocre or bad against Maryland, this business trip to College Park will not provide winning results.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.