How Hawkeyes can avoid Halloween scare from Maryland

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. – For 10th-ranked Iowa to leave Kinnick Stadium a winner Saturday night and achieve just the second 8-0 start in the football program’s history, it needs to expect the unexpected.

Maryland comes to town as a 17-point underdog for a 2:30 p.m. game, and the recipe is there for providing the home fans – probably around 64,000 of them – a Halloween scare.

The Terrapins are 2-5 (0-3 in the Big Ten Conference), but are a much different team than the one that lost 45-6 at West Virginia on Sept. 26.

“They’ve started that mentality, ‘Why not give it a shot? What’s there to lose?’ ” Iowa leading tackler Cole Fisher said. “Teams can be dangerous when they get that mentality.”

What else has changed? Quite a lot.

Brown: Iowa's offensive balance key to beating Maryland

The quarterback is new. All Perry Hills has done in his last two starts is rush for 294 yards and pass for 358.

“He's one of their best runners, which that gives you a lot to think about,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “And they're very creative offensively.”

That stems from the Terrapins’ coach. He’s new, too, but not to Iowa. Interim boss Mike Locksley will be in his second game since Randy Edsall was fired. Locksley has faced Iowa as an assistant at Florida (in the 2004 Outback Bowl), during four seasons at Illinois (2005-08) as Ron Zook’s offensive coordinator and, of course, last season he pulled Maryland's offensive strings in a 38-31 win over the Hawkeyes.

After the Edsall dismissal following a 49-28 loss at Ohio State – in which the Terrapins were tied with the nation’s No. 1 team in the third quarter, 21-all – Locksley said he wanted the players to start having more fun, to stop playing uptight. They did in last week’s 31-30 loss to 6-2 Penn State.

“I like the way our team has come together after facing some tough adversity the last couple of weeks,” Locksley said. “I like the way that our team played really loose and ran to the ball. … I like that we fought for 60 minutes, for the most part. Those are the things that we can build on.”

So, how can Iowa prepare for and conquer the unexpected Saturday? Let’s examine.

Maryland interim head coach Mike Locksley, center, speaks with quarterback Perry Hills, left, and running back Wes Brown. Locksley and Hills's return to the lineup give the Terrapins a new look than they had in the beginning of the season.

Preventing big-play disasters

Topping the list of adversity Iowa needs to avoid: Giving up a big special-teams play or an injury-aggravating sack on quarterback C.J. Beathard.

Hawkeye fans can start to feel comfortable Saturday in that regard if they don’t notice the Maryland players wearing No. 4 and No.  7.

Wearing No. 4 is defensive back William Likely. He’s a playmaker, much like Desmond King for Iowa except maybe even better. You probably tried to forget that he intercepted Jake Rudock last year in College Park, Md., and returned it for a 45-yard fourth-quarter touchdown.

In this season’s opener against Richmond, Likely broke none other than Nile Kinnick’s 76-year-old, single-game punt-return yardage record for a Big Ten player.

“We really feel like Likely is as good of a returner as there is in the country,” Ferentz said.

So, this will be the biggest test yet for Iowa punter Dillon Kidd, who has been terrific directionally and distance-wise (44.8 yards per punt).

Wearing No. 7 is junior defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. Similar to Wisconsin’s Joe Schobert, who looked like Lawrence Taylor in his prime against the Hawkeyes on Oct. 3, Ngakoue will be trying to attack from multiple spots on the field. His 1.3 sacks per game (nine overall) rank second nationally.

“Really active,” Ferentz said. “Really hard player to block and contain.”

Keeping Beathard free from hits rests on the offensive line, which has been outstanding in the run game but has allowed some free shots on Iowa's most crucial player. A big hit vs. Illinois left the junior QB (8-0 as a starter) hobbled. He gutted out the Oct. 17 win at Northwestern at 50 percent power with a right groin injury. He probably won't be up to 100 percent Saturday ("I'm getting there," he said Tuesday), but he has taken more practice reps after lots of rest and treatment during Iowa’s bye week.

He should have starting left tackle Boone Myers (stinger) in the lineup for the first time since Big Ten play began.

One wrong move, though, or one missed block could damage Beathard’s mobility or availability.

“I’m sure they’ll throw something in there, something different. Most teams do,” Beathard said. “You’ve just got to be ready for that. And when that happens, get back on the sideline and talk about what you can do.”

Stop the run, get to eight

The biggest factor in Maryland’s underwhelming 2015 is the turnover margin: Minus-13, next-to-worst in FBS. The Terrapins committed five turnovers – including three on their final four possessions – in the one-point loss to Penn State. Iowa’s margin is plus-7 – including plus-2 in every Big Ten game.

Imagine how tenuous Saturday’s game for Iowa could be if Maryland does a better job protecting the football. In addition to turnovers, Locksley said he counted 11 “50/50” balls (such as up-for-grabs downfield passes) Saturday; Penn State collected 10 of them.

“If you look at the tape,” Locksley said, “very few times were the defensive backs not in position. They were right there to make the play. The next step is to finish that play.”

Should Iowa be held to a draw, or worse, in the turnover department, it will need to win the field-position battle. That starts with stopping the run.

That’s been the Hawkeyes’ strong point all year – they rank third nationally against the run, allowing 74.1 yards a game. But Maryland might present the strongest challenge to that number yet. The Terps run a lot of spread formations and misdirection. They average a 5.2 yards a carry, second in the Big Ten to Ohio State, including 5.5 a pop since Hills took over again.

“Their plays are a lot different than what we’ve been seeing,” Fisher said. “Each play has an option to go to the front side, and also an option to go to the back with the quarterback. You have to make sure you know your assignment and not try to do too much.”

None of Iowa’s seven opponents has stuck with the running game for four quarters. Even run-first, run-second Wisconsin tried more passes (38) than runs (34) against the Hawkeyes.

To Iowa’s credit, it has schemed to make opponents one-dimensional – allowing just 2.46 yards a run and an FBS-low one rushing touchdown helps.

So, if the Hawkeyes can stick to their fundamentals (ball protection, blocking, sound tackling, good special-teams play) that have led the undefeated charge – and keep Maryland stuck in bad turnover habits – they’ll do what Vegas expects and win by a few touchdowns. If that happens, they'll be 8-0 and in the conversation of the year’s first College Football Playoff Rankings that’ll be released Tuesday night on ESPN.

Talk about unexpected.

“We simply know we can’t let up. That’s when we slip up,” new starting running back Akrum Wadley said. “We want to treat Maryland like we do any other team.”

Saturday's Game

Who: Maryland (2-5, 0-3 Big Ten) at No. 10 Iowa (7-0, 3-0)

When, where: 2:30 p.m., Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City

Television: ABC regional broadcast (ESPN2 otherwise). Announcers are Adam Amin and Kelly Stouffer.

The line: Iowa is favored by 17.

Forecast: Cloudy, with a high of 52 degrees; a 90 percent chance of rain early Saturday tapers to 20 percent at kickoff