Iowa football receivers know they must be sure-handed
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The drops must stop.
That’s not just the view of disgruntled Iowa football fans. The players themselves know they need to be nearly perfect if they’re going to upset No. 3 Ohio State (7-1, 5-0 Big Ten Conference) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Kinnick Stadium.
That means quarterback Nate Stanley can’t overthrow open receivers, a problem at times early in the season.
And it means his receivers need to hang on to the football whenever Stanley hits them in the hands, a failure that has occasionally hurt the Hawkeyes in recent weeks.
“Our job is to get points, and you kind of feel like you let the defense down when you don’t get points,” senior wide receiver Matt VandeBerg said.
Iowa (5-3, 2-3) is in the bottom half of the league in scoring (10th at 25 points per game), with neither its rushing nor passing game standing out.
But the Hawkeye pass offense has seemed close to breaking out. It has produced 18 touchdowns and 215 yards per game.
It also has produced an equal number of groans from Hawkeye fans who have watched near-completions prevent big plays throughout the season.
No receiver has been immune from dropped passes. Even VandeBerg, the steadiest and headiest of Hawkeyes, had one in Saturday’s 17-10 home win over Minnesota.
In a 17-10 loss at Michigan State, it was Nick Easley, the team’s leading receiver with 36 catches, who dropped back-to-back passes that forced a punt.
The 17-10 overtime loss at Northwestern ended when sophomore tight end Noah Fant looked to run before securing a Stanley pass into his midsection.
Redshirt freshman tight end T.J. Hockenson dropped two passes against Minnesota. Freshman wideout Ihmir Smith-Marsette had a perfectly thrown ball carom off his face mask and to a Gophers defender for an interception.
Even senior tailback Akrum Wadley has seen a few passes bounce off his fingertips this fall.
There’s nowhere to hide when that happens. Everyone in the stadium can see the mistake.
“Nobody goes out there wanting to drop a pass. It just comes down to focusing, making those plays,” Easley said. “It’s a mental game. You’ve just got to focus, and then you’ve got to really forget about it. Thinking about it’s not going to help you move on to the next play.”
The Buckeyes are allowing 195 passing yards per game, with 10 touchdowns. There is no easy way to move the ball against the No. 12 defense in the nation.
But the path to victory for Iowa figures to be through the air. And that means taking advantage of every chance to gain yardage.
“We’ve got to sustain drives so the offense stays on the field and keep (the defense) well-rested,” said Wadley, who has 19 receptions and three touchdowns.
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Fant and Hockenson have combined for 33 catches and six touchdowns and can create mismatches for any defense — even Ohio State’s — with their size and speed. The second-year players also have to believe in themselves.
Fant certainly bounced back Saturday, hauling in a 45-yard touchdown from Stanley and converting another key third down.
“Obviously, Northwestern was devastating, tough one for sure,” Fant said. “It was just important to get back out there on the field and compete. And I was able to do that, and it felt good.”
Hockenson was targeted on Iowa’s first play against Minnesota, a scripted bootleg pass from Stanley out of a three-tight end formation that caught the Gophers by surprise and produced a 22-yard gain.
The two later drops were rare mistakes.
“We’ve got to get over it and hopefully you trust the same guy the next play to catch the ball,” Hockenson said. “You beat yourself up for a few seconds, but once the next play’s snapped, you’ve got to flush it and be confident in yourself.”
Stanley, a sophomore in his first year as a Hawkeye starter, said he is quick to encourage his teammates after they drop one of his passes.
“The only thing you can say in the moment is just keep your head up and make the next play,” he said. “Obviously, if they dwell on it, I think it can affect their performance.”
Stanley also is quick to critique his own performance, admitting he’s never happy with how a game has gone.
“Continuing to work on ball placement from my end and also getting better at running routes,” he said of two areas the Iowa pass game must improve.
Stanley even found fault with his 45-yard touchdown to Fant, a pass lofted so high that the 6-foot-4 tight end had plenty of time to run under it. Stanley has heard the complaints about his overthrows and has acknowledged he needs to get more air on his deep passes.
“I think it could have been a little bit farther,” he said of the throw to Fant. “But obviously with how wide-open he was, it didn’t have to be perfect.
“Yeah, (I was) pretty excited in the moment when it happens. But you also can’t be satisfied with how you played. There’s still a long ways to go.”
There’s four weeks to go in the regular season. Iowa’s quarterback and receivers know they need to put it all together now if they want to knock off the 17 ½-point favorites who are coming to town Saturday.