Three games under .500 with five remaining, with bowl eligibility slipping further away by the week, Maryland has firmly entrenched itself as the underdog for the rest of its season. There have been the blowout losses and a coaching change, now-rectified uncertainty at quarterback and injuries in the front seven. With the murderer's row of the Big Ten Conference's East division and two capable opponents in the West as crossover opponents, the wins down the stretch look hard to come by.
Despite everything that's happened this season, Maryland sees itself as the team with no pressure on it. When the Terps take the field Saturday against No. 10 Iowa, one of the nation's 12 undefeated teams, they know the Hawkeyes will be the center of attention. And that could work to the advantage of the 17-point underdogs.
"Undefeated teams, they always are afraid of letting one go," left guard Ryan Doyle said. "We'd love to be the first one they let go."
Interim coach Mike Locksley has preached playing loose with a backyard mindset to his team, and it's had an impact. More players are finding roles for themselves. They're having fun. The offensive production has increased after a few listless weeks in late September and early October.
The only thing missing is a tangible result. The Terps were about as close as they could have gotten against Penn State — trailing by one point with more than 10 minutes left and four chances to take the lead — and came up short. They're mired in a four-game losing streak, their longest since they lost six straight to close the 2012 season.
But ask any Maryland players, and the season isn't a lost cause yet. In fact, the Terps feel they're on the upswing.
"With everything that's gone on and things like that, the team's kind of picking up momentum in our own type of way that we're here," defensive end Roman Braglio said. "We're still fighting. We're going to turn this season around and show people that we can play with these guys, hopefully pull out a win and things like that."
After facing No. 1 Ohio State, No. 15 Michigan and Penn State already this month, nothing gets easier for Maryland. Iowa ranks 12th nationally in total defense, and the Hawkeyes rushing defense's mark of 74.1 yards allowed per game is good for third.
That sets a matchup of strength against strength, as the new-look Terps' rushing game will aim to continue the success it has had since quarterback Perry Hills became the team's starter before the Ohio State game. Hills has rushed for the most yards in a two-game stretch since 2008, and the Maryland rushing offense has jumped from 11th in the Big Ten to third since he's taken over.
Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard has been efficient this season, completing 61 percent of his passes and throwing only three interceptions. And though running back Jordan Canzeri (698 yards, nine touchdowns) will miss Saturday's game, backup Akrum Wadley rushed for 204 yards and four touchdowns in a 40-10 win over Northwestern two weeks ago. The Hawkeyes offense is talented, and it can hurt Maryland in myriad ways.
All of it just makes the stage that much more alluring for the Terps. It's the end of October, and they're going on the road to face an undefeated team. The opportunity for a major upset, to make an imprint on the national college football scene, is there.
"I think you always want to play a big team," kicker Brad Craddock said. "The bigger game, the better. You want that, especially playing college football and Big Ten football. The bigger the competition, the better the competition. That's what you want to strive for because that's the team you want to beat."
There's been reason for optimism for Maryland this season since Locksley took over on Oct. 11. But the Terps still haven't won a game since beating South Florida on Sept. 19. And to get off that skid this week, it'll take a major upset.
"I hope they overlook us," Braglio said. "It's more of an advantage if we get overlooked because they're not going to expect us coming up there."
Maryland offense vs. Iowa defense: In two games since Perry Hills retook the starting quarterback job, the Terps running game has vaulted from 11th to third in the Big Ten Conference. Hills has rushed 51 times for 294 yards and three touchdowns against No. 1 Ohio State and Penn State, and Maryland will look to continue that success on the ground against the nation's third-best rushing defense. If Iowa holds on the ground, Maryland will have to win through the air. Despite throwing three interceptions against the Nittany Lions, Hills was relatively efficient on 19 of 28 passing for 225 yards and a touchdown. He's shown good chemistry with wide receivers Malcolm Culmer (career-high 65 receiving yards against Penn State) and Amba Etta-Tawo, and it could be on his arm and Maryland's playmakers on the outside to decide the game.
Maryland defense vs. Iowa offense: It appeared the Terps were set to catch a break with Hawkeyes running back Jordan Canzeri (nine touchdowns) out. But then backup Akrum Wadley rushed for 204 yards and four touchdowns when Iowa throttled Northwestern, 40-10, two weeks ago. So the Maryland defensive line — one that got banged up last week against Penn State — will have its hands full with the Iowa running game. Hawkeyes quarterback C.J. Beathard is a dual-threat who was thrown for nine touchdowns (to three interceptions) and rushed for three more. The Hawkeyes are averaging 421.1 yards per game, and it's split about evenly between the air and the ground. The Terps won last year's matchup in College Park by making Iowa one-dimensional through the air.