Matt VandeBerg points the way for Iowa's receivers

Chad Leistikow
Iowa’s Matt VandeBerg (89) points downfield after a first-down reception in front of Iowa State’s Darian Cotton, right, during the Hawkeyes' 31-17 win.

IOWA CITY, Ia. – It became routine in the decisive fourth quarter of Iowa’s 31-17 win at Iowa State: Matt VandeBerg catching a clutch third-down pass, then pointing downfield with a straight, outstretched arm.

First down, Hawkeyes.

Five of VandeBerg’s career-high nine catches Saturday against the Cyclones went for first downs, including four on third down. The motion afterward resembled more of an officer directing traffic than a referee signaling first down. It caught the Iowa receivers’ attention in follow-up film reviews.

“That was a new thing he started doing,” senior receiver Jacob Hillyer said. “That was fun. We pointed it out in meetings. I think he might keep doing that. We’ll see.”

You can bet Iowa’s future opponents, starting with Pittsburgh at 7:12 p.m. Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, will be pointing out the Big Ten Conference receptions leader, too. VandeBerg’s 15 catches in two weeks are more than he had all last season (14).

Iowa State paid so much attention to No. 1 receiving threat Tevaun Smith that VandeBerg, usually out of the slot-receiver position, was able to break free for critical gains. VandeBerg hauled in 75 of his career-best 114 yards in the fourth quarter, including a 48-yard strike from C.J. Beathard on third-and-21.

“They gave me a lot of attention. On third down, they would have a safety over top of (the corner),” Smith said. “Then you’ve got Matt VandeBerg on the other side that can do just as much as I can.

“It definitely hurt them, I guess.”

Throughout the offseason, there was concern over whether anybody could become the wingman for 6-foot-2, 205-pound senior Smith, who needs 16 receiving yards to become the 37th Hawkeye with 1,000 for his career.

Hello, “Meerkat.” That’s what teammates call Iowa’s spindly 6-1, generously-listed-at-185 target. (A meerkat is a small, African mongoose that weighs 1-2 pounds.)

“He’s a little undersized, but he does a great job with what he can do,” Beathard said of the junior, who has accounted for half of his 30 completions.

“He’s a guy that you love to see in there … because I know he’s going to be where I want him to be at all times. He’s a smart guy. You can count on him.”

What does VandeBerg mean going forward to Iowa’s receiving options? Hillyer, the No. 3 guy and a fifth-year senior, has never had more than two catches in a game. The No. 4, Riley McCarron, caught his first pass since 2013 against Iowa State – it was a big one, a go-ahead 25-yard touchdown with 2 minutes, 14 seconds to go. True freshman Jerminic Smith is the fifth receiver, and he’s still looking for his first career catch.

That makes the emergence of VandeBerg a key development for a group of receivers that have struggled to get separation from defenders.

“Tevaun being as good as he is, I think he gets a lot of the attention,” VandeBerg said. “Which means I have to win my one-on-one matchups.”

Injuries to Iowa’s most vertical threats at tight end – Jake Duzey and George Kittle – have limited Beathard’s ability to spread the ball around. Kittle (knee strain) said he’s feeling better this week, and Duzey (torn patellar tendon) is still at least another week away.

So, against Pitt, expect more attention to swirl around VandeBerg’s routes – and see if that opens up anyone else.

“Now it’s kind of a 1-2 punch. It’s an exciting sign for us,” Smith said. “There’s two receivers that can make plays. If one doesn’t, another one is going to step up.”