PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Four weeks into the season, Iowa’s football team is suffering from separation anxiety.
As in: Why can’t Hawkeye wide receivers separate themselves from opposing defensive backs?
The lack of production from that unit has been particularly acute the past two Saturdays, when a troubling pattern has emerged. In each game — a 23-21 home loss to North Dakota State on Sept. 17 and a 14-7 win at Rutgers on Saturday — Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard has found himself spending precious seconds scanning in vain for someone to pass to, often taking punishing hits for his efforts.
Iowa (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten Conference) is averaging just 8.5 catches for 114 yards per game from its wide receivers, with steady Matt VandeBerg providing the bulk of that production.
In the past two games, those numbers are even worse: Six catches for an average of 64 yards.
In the second halves of the last two outings, either by design or out of necessity, the Hawkeye passing game has virtually evaporated. Beathard has attempted only four passes after halftime each of the past two weeks (although backup Nathan Stanley came on briefly and completed two passes against NDSU).
On Saturday, Beathard completed a 30-yard screen pass to tailback Akrum Wadley on the second play of the second half. After that? He was 1-for-3, with the completion to VandeBerg — for minus-1 yard. He was sacked twice, although the pass protection was generally solid. It was more a result of open receivers being hard to come by.
“I’m not necessarily concerned about it because I know the talent we have at receiver and I know what we can do,” Beathard said. “I’m sure that there were plays out there to be had that I was just looking at the other side of the field based off best-look side and you’ll see that kind of stuff on tape. When it’s man-to-man, it’s going to be tight coverage either way you put it, and that’s mostly what they did.”
That’s what you would expect a senior quarterback to say, but it’s safe to assume that if there were any wideouts running free, Beathard would have gladly delivered the football to them.
VandeBerg had four catches for 17 yards in his least impactful outing of the season. Jerminic Smith had another two catches for 36 yards, plus another back-shoulder throw that he failed to adjust to in time to catch.
Riley McCarron and Jay Scheel were barely even targeted.
One outcome of the lack of activity from the wide receivers has been the emergence of tight end George Kittle as a downfield option. He's been Iowa’s leading receiver the past two weeks, and scored the Hawkeyes’ first touchdown Saturday on a beautifully designed 36-yard play.
Beathard said that using Kittle more was not linked to the declining output of wide receivers, however.
“We like to get George involved in the offense. He’s a talented player,” Beathard said. “He’s a weapon for us, and any time he can help your offense do well, it’s good.”
The other outcome of Beathard being forced to clutch the football longer is more frequent exposure to onrushing defensive players. Against NDSU, Beathard looked hesitant to leave the pocket and was slow to feel the pressure on one first-half play that resulted in a blindside hit and an interception return for a touchdown.
To Iowa’s credit, that's the lone turnover surrendered in four games.
Beathard came out running Saturday, rolling out to buy time and taking off on occasion like the Beathard of old. He gained 17 yards rushing on Iowa’s first two plays and finished with 37 yards on the ground — a total that includes minus-16 on the two sacks — for his best showing of the season.
But he paid a price. Sliding to avoid contact is still not in Beathard’s makeup.
He was willing to concede that some of the blame for the hits may be his.
“We’ll look at tape and see what happened, why exactly and whose fault it was, whether I’ve got to get the ball out quicker or a protection breakdown,” Beathard said.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, also cautioned that Beathard needs to make wiser decisions.
“There’s times where he’s trying to do a little bit too much or make something out of whatever situation it might be,” Ferentz said. “There’s no sin in punting the ball sometimes or throw it out of bounds.”
In all, Beathard completed 12-of-23 passes for 162 yards against Rutgers. Saturday’s matchup, at home against Northwestern (1-3, 0-1), offers an interesting opportunity for the Hawkeyes to boost those numbers.
The Wildcats are allowing opposing wide receivers to grab 17 passes for 190 yards per game. Beathard would undoubtedly love to see his group get to that level. It would lessen the toll on his body, for sure.
“You don’t want your quarterback hit at all,” said Iowa tailback LeShun Daniels Jr., who has been the third-down option the past two weeks. “We’re going to have to do a better job in pass protection, and how we do that is staying on schedule in the early downs so we don’t have to get in third-and-long yardage situations.”
To do that, Iowa needs to get some traction in its passing game. Otherwise, Beathard is going to be in traction by November.