IOWA CITY, Ia. — Some of the most popular criticisms of Greg Davis and the Iowa offense haven't been sticking in 2015.
The Hawkeye football team is off to a 3-0 start for the first time since 2009, thanks to a slew of visible improvements over last season — better special-teams play, better quarterback play, better defense and, yes, better offensive schemes.
Credit probably needs to be shared among at least these four individuals: Davis, Iowa's embattled fourth-year offensive coordinator; head coach Kirk Ferentz, whose January depth chart signaled change; offensive line coach Brian Ferentz, whose promotion to run-game coordinator was more than clerical; and C.J. Beathard, a versatile playmaker who leads Big Ten Conference quarterbacks in rushing.
Here are five not-sticking-in-2015 criticisms of Davis' offense:
The running game is too predictable
To that, Davis could present Exhibit A — Iowa's final first-half possession in Saturday's 27-24 win over Pittsburgh. Pitt made no bones about its willingness to stop the run, putting nine men in the box at times. So, Iowa responded with creativity once it reached the Panthers' 11-yard line late in the first half.
On consecutive plays, Iowa swept slot receiver Matt VandeBerg into the backfield as the ball was snapped to give Pitt's defense an end-around look. Instead, Beathard handed off to Jordan Canzeri for runs of 7 and 4 yards, the latter resulting in a touchdown. VandeBerg's motion drew attention from aggressive linebackers and safeties, freeing up Canzeri for tough-to-come-by yardage.
The Hawkeyes also seem be doing more pulling of their guards, particularly Jordan Walsh, and center Austin Blythe — in an effort to use their speed to generate bigger plays downfield.
The key, Walsh says, is: "You can't be overaggressive. You have to be pretty calm running, because a guy like a corner(back) … he might be more athletic than me. You have to slow down and fit him on your backside pad."
Iowa is averaging 4.9 yards a carry in 2015, and that includes a hard-fought 3.6 vs. Pitt. The Hawkeyes averaged 4.1 in 2014.
Too many 4-yard throws on third-and-6
That criticism was particularly voluminous in 2014 with Jake Rudock at quarterback. Under Beathard, that hasn't happened — just check the stats.
Twelve times this season, Iowa has faced a third-down situation of between 5 and 9 yards to go. Not once has there been a pass completion that fell short of first-down yardage.
Iowa has converted five of those 12 situations into first downs, including two touchdowns — a 14-yard pass to Tevaun Smith vs. Iowa State on third-and-9 and a 9-yard TD run by Beathard vs. Pitt on third-and-5.
The Hawkeyes rank 14th in FBS in third-down conversions overall, at 48.8 percent (20 of 41).
The play-calling is too conservative
This one has been obvious if viewed from the prism of the two fake field goals, two shovel passes and a flea-flicker.
But more notably, four of Iowa's five longest scrimmage plays of 2015 have started inside its own red zone. Beathard opened the Pitt game 6-of-11 passing for 30 yards until connecting with Smith for 51 yards on a play-action deep pass that snapped at Iowa's 19-yard line.
Three of those explosive plays came during the Hawkeyes' 31-17 win at Iowa State — Beathard rolling out and running for 44 yards from his own 1-yard line; Beathard going for 57 (Iowa's longest play of the season) from his own 13; and a 48-yard missile to VandeBerg on third-and-21 from his own 6.
So much for third-and-long draw plays. That strike to VandeBerg in a 17-17 game in the fourth quarter led to this refreshing quote.
"Like Coach Davis was telling me," Beathard said, "if we catch them with their pants down, we're going to take a shot."
Highlights from Iowa's win over Pitt
The offense can't make proper adjustments
Iowa came out throwing against Pittsburgh, an out-of-character game plan for a team that likes to establish the run. But rather than deciding to go all-pass, all-the-time against Pat Narduzzi's array of blitzes, the Hawkeyes circled back to the ground game — after finding ways to handle the pressure.
One of the game's unsung plays was Beathard hitting Smith for 18 yards over the middle in the face of a blitz on second-and-8. This came after Pitt had rattled the Hawkeye offense into an interception and a three-and-out on the two previous possessions.
Magically (but not really), things began to loosen up
"We obviously weren't going to give up on the run," said Canzeri, who capped that drive with one of his two touchdown runs. "We were going to continue to try to see which runs worked better than others. The coaches, they saw it. They knew which ones would work in the second half and they adapted to that game plan."
The clock management stinks
Ferentz has taken heat in the past for misuse of timeouts or giving opponents too much time to score. So far, that hasn't been the case in 2015. Give Beathard a ton of credit in this category, too.
When Iowa got the ball at its own 30 with 44 seconds left in a 24-24 game against Pitt, he treated every second as precious. He got out of bounds on one scramble; he didn't call a timeout after rushing for a first down (which stops the clock for officials move the chains); and he starting going to the ground with 3 seconds left and called timeout after running to Pitt's 39, giving Marshall Koehn a shot at the game-winning, walk-off 57-yard field goal.
Beathard said proper time management stems begins with coaching and practice.
"I don't think anything's gotten into (Ferentz)," Beathard said. "We work those situations a lot in practice — 40 seconds left in the game, get it here for a field goal."