What makes Iowa the Big Ten's most-prolific big-play offense

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — There were some justifiable concerns about Iowa’s offense in the spring, when the first-teamers failed to score a touchdown against the No. 1 defense in 2½ hours of open scrimmages.

The concerns were magnified during the Aug. 15 Kids’ Day practice, when the first-team defense “sacked” (touched, play blown dead) quarterback C.J. Beathard on eight of 35 drop-backs. Again, no 1s-vs.-1s TDs as Beathard went 10-of-24 for 106 yards.

So of course, two months later, Iowa owns the most prolific big-play offense in the Big Ten Conference.

“We’re probably more explosive through seven games than I would have anticipated in August,” offensive coordinator Greg Davis said Wednesday, echoing the thoughts of Hawkeye observers.

Yes, it’s Iowa — not Ohio State, not Indiana, not Michigan State, not Wisconsin — that has the most offensive plays of 40 or more yards in the 14-team Big Ten. The 12th-ranked Hawkeyes already have 12 of them during their 7-0 start after averaging 8.3 per season in Davis’ first three years calling the plays.

What’s changed?

It’s a multi-pronged answer, but it starts with the new trigger man. Beathard has been a direct contributor of eight of the 40-plus plays, including on two long runs against Iowa State that flipped momentum in that road win. His ability to check off his first receiving option and move the chains anyway with his arm or legs has helped huddle-almost-always Iowa average 32.9 points a game.

“From a tangible standpoint, his ability to get the ball to his second and third receivers (has been most impressive),” Davis said. “I felt like at the line of scrimmage he would do a great job.”

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He’s done both. It was a Beathard audible that led to Jordan Canzeri’s 75-yard, game-changing touchdown run vs. Illinois in a 29-20 win.

Canzeri also took a short screen pass against Illinois State and turned it into a 51-yard gain to set up a half-ending field goal. By the way, Iowa has outscored opponents 33-14 in the final 2 minutes of halves, another positive measure of efficiency.

“We've worked hard on our screens,” Davis said. “A lot of times that's putting a back in a good situation, and again, the line has to do a good job because they're not just all going out together. There's assignments that they have, and then our backs have done a good job of running after the catch.”

Speed in the backfield has helped. Three different running backs (Canzeri, Derrick Mitchell Jr. and Akrum Wadley) have 40-plus rushing plays. Only one of three-year starter Mark Weisman’s 599 carries (a 44-yarder in 2012 vs. Minnesota) topped 40.

Reeling off chunks of yardage help make Davis’ job easier. Iowa is averaging 5.0 yards a carry despite starting four different tackles and a true freshman on its offensive line, compared with 4.1 per rush a year ago — with Mitchell at 7.7, Wadley at 7.0, Canzeri at 5.1 and LeShun Daniels Jr. at 4.3.

“If you can get a couple of chunk plays during the course of a game, it does wonders for field position,” Davis said, “it does wonders for your football team.”

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So where did this all come from? The spring and summer were ominous, with the offense seemingly helpless against the Drew Ott-dominated first-team defense.

But the asterisks involved were: The defense (which is ranked top-12 nationally) knew what was coming; Beathard (like all quarterbacks) wore no-contact jerseys; and the fullbacks weren’t given full license to be fullbacks.

The blocking provided by seniors Macon Plewa and Adam Cox, who were both injured last year, have been instrumental in this stat: The Hawkeyes have 12 rushes of 20 or more yards, compared with two for their opponents.

And don’t forget the downfield blocking of receivers like Tevaun Smith, Jacob Hillyer and Riley McCarron. On Wadley’s 35-yard touchdown run that gave Iowa a 9-0 lead at Northwestern, it was Hillyer’s seal block on the left edge gave Wadley a chance to make a 1-on-1 open-field play. Wadley made the cornerback miss, and he was off to the races.

“I think probably not enough nice things are said about our fullbacks and our wide receivers,” Davis said, “because they've really done a good job of creating explosive plays downfield.”

IOWA’S 40-PLUS PLAYS ON OFFENSE (in order of length)

81 – Tevaun Smith TD reception (from C.J. Beathard), vs. North Texas. Deep middle throw gives Iowa 28-3 lead in 62-16 rout.

75 – Jordan Canzeri TD rush, vs. Illinois. One-play drive to right side breaks open 16-13 game; Canzeri ends up with 256 yards.

57 – Beathard rush, vs. Iowa State. Designed QB run out of shotgun didn’t lead to points but saved Iowa from its own 13.

51 – Canzeri reception (from Beathard), vs. Illinois State. Electric run after designed screen late in first half led to three points.

51 – Tevaun Smith reception (from Beathard), vs. Pittsburgh. Deep throw helped soften Panthers’ attacking blitzes, led to 10-0 lead.

49 – Jerminic Smith reception (from Beathard), vs. Illinois. Improvised deep ball leads to TD, with Beathard throwing on the run.

48 – Matt VandeBerg reception (from Beathard), vs. Iowa State. Third-and-21 play, fourth quarter, 17-17 game, pass on the money.

46 – Jerminic Smith reception (from Beathard), vs. Illinois. Tough catch up the right sideline on third-and-27, with Iowa trailing 7-6.

45 – Derrick Mitchell Jr. rush, vs. North Texas. Late burst helps softens flow of botched reverse earlier on Mitchell’s first career carry.

44 – Beathard rush, vs. Iowa State. A rollout right on second-and-16 from Iowa’s own 1 leads to tying first-half TD.

43 – George Kittle TD reception (from Beathard), vs. North Texas. Deep toss up right sideline on a wheel route fools Mean Green.

41 – Akrum Wadley rush, vs. Northwestern. One of several gashing runs that destroyed the Wildcats’ will in a 40-10 rout.