Schwartz: Hawkeyes, Terps, and Irrational Fear

October 18, 2018

Written by David Schwartz

On film, on paper, statistically, and through other metrics, Iowa should be 6-1 after this week’s homecoming game against Maryland at Kinnick Stadium.

But upsets happen, and something about this game has had me worried since before the Hawkeyes’ season-opening win against Northern Illinois. The word Maryland stands out in a larger font on Iowa’s schedule, as if something cosmic has been trying to warn me—Watch out!

This is a hard one to articulate, but as we know, sports fandom isn’t rational. We panic and thin slice. We indulge superstitions, enable our worst emotional tendencies. Etymologists mostly agree that fan is short for fanatic, which comes from the Latin word fanaticus, which can mean enthusiastic but also mad. Madness trumps logic. 

Purdue, Northwestern, Illinois—could Iowa lose these games? Sure, of course. Those teams have Division I players who work hard. The Hawkeyes are the favorite, but sports are sports, right?

So what is it about Maryland that’s mined my insecurities 

Well, that’s the problem. I don’t entirely know. Perhaps I’ve gone mad.

It’s not Maryland’s vaunted running game, which earlier this week Kirk Ferentz loosely compared to Georgia Tech’s flexbone offense. Norm Parker’s eyes once lit up when he was asked how to defend the flexbone, after which Iowa smothered Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. The Terps have the 20th-ranked rushing offense in the country.

It’s not the DJ Durkin effect, either. Durkin is Maryland’s head coach. He’s been suspended while the University of Maryland investigates whether he promoted a dangerous culture around the team. Certainly there’s something to be said for players responding positively when they feel better about their environment. Maryland is 4-2 under interim head coach Matt Canada and received a couple of votes in the most recent AP Top 25 poll.

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Nor is it Maryland’s increasingly impressive win earlier this year over now seventh-ranked Texas. The Longhorns are in the playoff hunt. Of course one should be impressed that the Terps beat them.

So let’s return to this idea of madness, the notion that sports fans will access some distant memory or obscure fear to justify a hope or an anxiety.

If a successful run game, the removal of a potentially toxic head coach, and empirical evidence (beating Texas) aren’t the causes of my worry, what is?

Oct. 18, 2014.

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That was Maryland’s first year in the Big Ten. Maryland, inside my small brain, was a basketball school the Big Ten wanted only so it could tap into the Washington D.C.-area market.

I equated Maryland football to Kansas football. To Illinois and Duke football—football programs that exist only because schools are required to field a team until basketball season starts. On Oct. 18, 2014, Maryland beat Iowa, 38-31. The Terps scored two touchdowns to open the fourth quarter to put away the Hawkeyes as I sat, disbelieving, on my brother-in-law’s couch.

That’s how vivid it was. I know where I was sitting, who I was watching with, the angle the TV was at, and the looks on faces of people around me. Before the game, I remember thinking it would be one of those enjoyable games you can half-watch while you stuff your face and visit with people. Maryland? Pffft. Who’s worried about Maryland?

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It was traumatic in a way that a midseason Big Ten football game should not be traumatic, yet it stuck, and it continues to stick, even though a year later Iowa beat the Terps, 31-15. The teams haven’t played since.

And that’s it. One stupid game. One stupid game from exactly four years ago today is the catalyst for two months of my fandom anxiety, for me to pessimistically tell everyone around me, with my most severe death-in-the-family tone, that “I just have a bad feeling about this weekend.”

Man, being a sports fan is just the weirdest.

Will the Hawkeyes beat Maryland on Saturday? More than likely, yes. But that’s of little comfort to those of us who have allowed ourselves to expect the worst.

* Talk with David Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz.

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