Iowa Takeaways: Offense struggles, but some positives

Chad Leistikow
Iowa linemen push forward as quarterback C.J. Beathard drops back during the Hawkeeys' game against Wisconsin at Camp Randall in Madison on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015.

MADISON, Wis. — Tevaun Smith, Iowa's No. 1 wide receiver, will likely miss at least the next two games with a knee injury. He didn't travel to Camp Randall Stadium for the Hawkeyes' 10-6 win over 19th-ranked Wisconsin.

"He's got a knee issue. I doubt he'll be back before the bye (Oct. 24)," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "We're optimistic he'll be ready to go when we get back after our bye week."

That timing would mean Smith, Iowa's most experienced receiver and top big-play threat, would be unavailable for the Illinois (Oct. 10) and Northwestern (Oct. 17) games and return for the Hawkeyes' final five contests.

Brown: Surging Iowa football team no longer a fad

With Smith out, true freshman Jerminic Smith made his first career start Saturday. The Garland, Texas, native was the target of four C.J. Beathard passes but is still looking for his first college catch. Smith and Beathard seemed a little bit off-rhythm throughout the game, but the 6-foot-1, 180-pound youngster will be thrown back out there next week.

"Jerminic, he surprised us back in August," Ferentz said. "We didn't quite see that coming."

Junior Matt VandeBerg was the only Iowa wide receiver who caught passes Saturday — six of them for 61 yards.

"I know that (Tevaun's) down and my number might be called a little bit more," said VandeBerg, who has 31 catches this season. "But as far as I'm concerned, I've just got to go out there and do my job."

Offensive struggles, but …

Don't panic about Iowa's offense, even though it was held to a season-low 221 yards after coming into the game ranked second in the Big Ten Conference in scoring.

The offensive line was effective in run blocking for main back Jordan Canzeri, who finished with a career-high 26 rush attempts for 125 hard-earned yards.

"We were able to move up and down the field," VandeBerg said, "but it was a matter of finishing from an offensive standpoint."

Yes, the red zone was the red flag for Iowa — four trips, 10 points on Saturday after entering the game with a staggering 6.3 points per red-zone trip (15 scores in 16 tries).

Iowa failed on a fourth-and-2 from Wisconsin's 8 in the first quarter, and Marshall Koehn badly missed a 27-yard chip shot from the left hash in the second. However, Iowa did convert two second-quarter turnovers into all of its points. The play-action touchdown pass from Beathard to George Kittle on first-and-goal from the 1 caught Wisconsin by surprise.

Status report: Iowa's win a homecoming for Kittle

Remembering Brian Ferentz's quote

Back in April, Iowa offensive line coach and run-game coordinator Brian Ferentz made this comment: "When we have a healthy program, we don't lose close ballgames."

He was right — Iowa has been at its best in the Kirk Ferentz era when it wins games decided by a touchdown or less. Iowa was 2-4 in such games in last year's 7-6 season; it's 2-0 in 2015 and 5-0 overall. (Iowa beat Pittsburgh, 27-24, on Sept. 19 — and would have added a third "close-game" W over Iowa State if not for a late Desmond King interception/Canzeri touchdown.)

"We decided since the offseason that we were going to make sure we put enough work in and focus on the little things, so that times like this come … that we can fight to the end, and we're going to finish," Canzeri said.

Safe to say, this program feels healthy right now, doesn't it?

New Kirk stays aggressive

Kirk Ferentz went 50 percent on fourth-down gambles Saturday. There was the fourth-and-2 referenced above, and then he really broke Old Kirk character in the fourth quarter with Iowa leading, 10-6. It was fourth-and-inches from Iowa's own 25, and Ferentz decided to roll the dice.

Going for it worked, with Beathard gaining 2 yards on a QB sneak — although the joy of the conversion was short-lived, with Wisconsin forcing a sack-and-fumble on the next play.

"That's something we talk about during the week," Ferentz said of the fourth downs. "It's not like we're pulling things out of our hat.

"We told the guys last night, we're going to come in here and play aggressive and play to win the game."

So, there you go. New Kirk continues to prevail even in an Old Kirk type of defensive slugfest.

Hawkeyes' offensive line still shaking out

Junior Cole Croston's first career start at left tackle, with sophomore Boone Myers out with a stinger, shuffled the deck on the second unit. True freshman James Daniels, who had been working as the top backup at guard, took second-team pregame reps at right tackle; Ryan Ward was at left tackle. Keegan Render, who is listed as the second-team right tackle, was working at right guard. Render missed a block against North Texas that led to a sack of backup quarterback Tyler Wiegers.

Bottom line: Daniels' stock continues to rise. He already is the first true freshman to play on Ferentz's line since 2007 (Bryan Bulaga). And he was again rotating with Sean Welsh and effective with Iowa's first unit during Saturday's game. Daniels was on the field for both Iowa scoring drives.

Cole Croston has game-saving play in first Hawkeye start

Don't count out Bucky

This was a huge game for Iowa's Big Ten West chances — without a win, Wisconsin would have continued to remain in at least the co-driver's seat with No. 16 Northwestern (which comes to Camp Randall Stadium on Nov. 21).

But one-eighth of the way through the conference season is too early to count out the Badgers, who have averaged 10 wins a season since 2009. Remember, in 2014 they lost the opener at Northwestern — and then ran the table with seven straight wins to get into the Big Ten title game against Ohio State.

"There's a ton of season to go," Badgers coach Paul Chryst said. "First guy that said something in the locker room was Joe Schobert, (who) said, 'Hey, Coach, same thing happened to us last year.' And like we've talked about, (at) the end of the year you'll get what you earn."

And lastly … good health

Iowa didn't seem to suffer any significant injuries Saturday. Center Austin Blythe was slow to get up at one point, but he played the whole game. The only other notable health news to report is regarding No. 3 running back Derrick Mitchell Jr., who has an unspecified injury and along with Myers and Tevaun Smith weren't brought to Madison.

"We're not big on traveling cheerleaders — we've already got a group of them," Ferentz said.