Iowa defense is flawless to keep Maryland 'jet' grounded

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The only functioning jet the Maryland football team found Saturday was the one that took the Terrapins home after their historic beatdown at Kinnick Stadium.

The Terrapins arrived with a confounding offense that was prone to producing big plays in the running game as part of its "jet" package.

It was no mystery at all to No. 22 Iowa.

Iowa right end A.J. Epenesa reacts after making a tackle against Maryland on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

The Hawkeyes' defense was nearly perfect, filling in every gap and even finding a way to score its first touchdown of the year in a 23-0 win full of superlatives.

  • It was Iowa’s first shutout since a 28-0 win at Illinois in 2016. The defensive starters played the entire game, a sign of how important that goose egg was after two near-misses in September.

“We’d been fighting for one all year,” Hawkeye defensive end A.J. Epenesa said. “We want to hold people down to zero if we can and kind of break their spirit.”

  • Maryland’s offense was on the field for only 39 plays, the lowest total in Kirk Ferentz’s 20 seasons as Iowa’s head coach.

“They'll isolate safeties if safeties aren't making tackles. Or corners. That's where those big plays come from,” Ferentz said of Maryland. “It was discipline plus tackling, surely, and I think those two things, we did a good job of that.”

  • Maryland gained a mere 115 yards, 250 below its average. That effort was the lowest production of any Big Ten Conference opponent in the Ferentz era.

“I think you have to come out with that confidence each week,” middle linebacker Kristian Welch said of a defense that has now limited four teams to their season-low in point totals.

Iowa ran its record to 6-1 (3-1 Big Ten Conference) with its third consecutive convincing victory. It did so by coming up with a terrific defensive gameplan and executing it flawlessly. The Terrapins (4-3, 2-2) came into the game averaging 6 yards per rush attempt. On Saturday, that number was cut exactly in half.

The Hawkeyes kept the Terrapins hiding in their shell.

It started with an attention to subtle cues that Iowa defenders could read before the ball was snapped. They looked into the Terrapins’ eyes. They noticed any slight leans. They anticipated running plays every time, adjusting to the pass on the 18 times it was called. The Terrapins completed only six of them and were sacked twice.

The Hawkeyes watched all the motion that Maryland likes to show, and then simply swarmed to the football, always seeming to be a step ahead. The players said afterward that the Terrapins showed them nothing for which they weren’t prepared.

“To string stuff out and keep them going sideways is something we wanted to do,” Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse said after making five tackles, two of them in the Maryland backfield.

The Terrapins ran only two plays in Iowa territory. The second was an interception by Iowa safety/linebacker Amani Hooker, who made a perfect read out of a “cover-2” defensive scheme.

“Just making sure we’re all on the same page,” Hooker said of the key to Iowa’s defensive performance. “When you’re in a different coverage on one side of the field, you can mess up, and that’s how big plays happen.”

Maryland’s longest gain was a 17-yard pass play.

“A lot of what we emphasized this week is being able to anticipate those motions and know the personnel that’s in the game and how they can hurt you,” Welch said.

“That’s how you win games is defense,” Epenesa added.

There was much pressure on Iowa’s defensive ends to not let Maryland runners get to the outside. Epenesa, Hesse, Anthony Nelson and Chauncey Golston had three primary assignments and handled them with ease. They combined for five tackles for loss.

“It was either tackle the dive, sit for the quarterback, tackle the jet motion,” Epenesa said. “And if you don’t do your job, they had the possibility of breaking it for 80 yards.”

Nelson had the coup de grace for the Iowa defense late in the third quarter. Maryland backup quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome was in the game for his second drive, backed up at his 10-yard line. He tried to hand the ball off, only to watch it drop to the ground, then bound backwards when he tried to retrieve it.

Nelson watched this all as well. He had been preparing to stop a jet sweep that he believed was coming in his direction.

Instead …

“I saw the mishandled exchange. As I started running at him, the quarterback tried to get on the ball and then it got fumbled or whatever, pushed into the end zone,” Nelson said. “I just saw the end zone and was like, ‘Man, I hope I don’t kick it out of the back of the end zone.’”

Nelson’s fear was unwarranted. He plopped onto the football for his first career touchdown.

That, too, looked easy. Like everything else Iowa’s defense did Saturday.