Leistikow: Reading the clues, Hawkeye passing game is close

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Much like Iowa’s football philosophy, reading between the lines of a Kirk Ferentz interview is a skill that takes developing.

I’m not ready to develop Ferentz-to-English code for Google Translate, but I do think I’m getting better at reading the Hawkeye head coach as time progresses.

And on my column idea for the day — what more is needed from Iowa’s sluggish passing game — I left Tuesday’s press conference with a positive read that it’s getting close.

Here’s what Ferentz said about a passing offense that averaged a mere 4.6 yards per attempt at Minnesota:

Riley McCarron makes one of his six receptions along the Iowa sideline (as Kirk Ferentz looks on) during Iowa's 14-7 win at Minnesota.

“It may not have looked like it to you guys, but to me I thought we made strides from the field Saturday. And then watching the film, there were a lot of things that were encouraging to me. I made the Steinbach reference somewhere here in the last seven days, but that's how things are in sports. You don't always have those breakthrough moments when you want them all the time.”

Let’s work backward. First, “the Steinbach reference” requires explaining. Ferentz is talking about the development of early 2000s lineman Eric Steinbach, who for years would “drag his right elbow” when he was going left. It was something Ferentz, an offensive line guru, constantly reiterated to Steinbach.

Then, one Tuesday practice in the middle of the season, Ferentz recalled Steinbach going left and “brought his back elbow with him, which doesn't sound like much to you, but it was a breakthrough moment for him.”

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Steinbach, as Hawkeye fans are aware, became an all-American guard on the 2002 team and an eight-year starter in the NFL.

So, maybe Ferentz saw his passing offense on the brink of a Steinbach moment within the pedestrian C.J. Beathard passing numbers of 17-for-31 for 142 yards with two interceptions against Minnesota.

He surely liked what he saw when talented redshirt sophomore Jay Scheel came back to the ball for a 12-yard catch on third-and-7.

He had to like how sophomore Jerminic Smith confidently grabbed a third-and-4 pass and turned it into a 16-yard gain.

He might have even liked most of a crisp, well-blocked receiver screen to Riley McCarron that opened for 13 yards, except for the lost fumble at the end of the play.

That play could encapsulate the close-but-not-quite vibe.

Even Beathard is starting to adopt coach-speak. He acknowledged that 6-for-17 on third-down conversions against the Gophers “isn’t great statistically” but saw improvement.

“We had a couple where, we needed six yards and got 5½; we needed 10 yards, George (Kittle) got 9½,” Beathard said.

Again, close but not quite.

Ferentz went on to say this about the passing game:

“Every now and then you get a guy like Tony Dorsett who makes four guys miss. … But it's usually a collective effort to get things done.”

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That’s code (I think) for improved pass protection, too, and that Iowa doesn’t have a Julio Jones-like force in the passing game. So it takes tight execution from all parties to move the football.

One more from the head coach, which requires no interpretation:

“We're running a real tight race here. We've only got six weeks left, so we're pushing as fast and as hard as we can.”

That’s the truth.

And that’s why I wanted to explore this now. This week’s 11 a.m. game at Purdue provides the Hawkeyes’ passing offense a great shot at a Steinbach moment.

The Boilermakers (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten Conference) are allowing 31.4 points and 431.6 yards per game, both next-to-last in the league to Rutgers. They are especially porous against the run, allowing 5.6 a carry and 244.2 yards a game.

Purdue has surely noticed that the Hawkeyes (4-2, 2-1) haven’t been able to consistently move the ball through the air — Beathard is averaging 165 passing yards in his last four games — so it’ll probably try to stack the run.

That provides the opportunity for gaining pass-game success.

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Maybe this is the week that Scheel or Smith storms into the spotlight.

Maybe it’s the week Devonte Young, who fifth-year senior McCarron said “is as far along as I’ve seen any freshman receiver since I’ve been here,"  makes his first impact play.

Maybe we see more of a 1-2 receiving punch at tight end from Kittle and true freshman Noah Fant, who Beathard called “a good matchup guy. He can run really fast.”

If the Hawkeyes are going to accomplish their goal of winning the Big Ten West, they'll have to be built to protect Kinnick Stadium against three top-10 teams coming in, starting Oct. 22 against No. 10 Wisconsin. And to combat the defensively aggressive Badgers, they'll require a passing game that moves the chains.

Last week, Iowa found progress in its rushing defense.

This week, the breakthrough needs to happen through the air. Otherwise, Iowa’s season will soon be gasping for some.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.