BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The march to 9-0 hasn’t been perfect. But it sure has been clutch.
And C.J. Beathard, he’s the Iowa mascot for clutch.
The junior reeled off a slew of key fourth-quarter plays as 10th-ranked Iowa kept its dream season going with Saturday’s 35-27 win at Indiana before 44,739 fans at Memorial Stadium.
This win — which matched Iowa’s school-record 9-0 start of 2009 — might have turned on a fourth-quarter throw from the Hawkeyes’ hobbled junior quarterback while nursing a 21-20 lead over the upset-minded Hoosiers.
Beathard, scrambling to his left on third-and-11, found improvising wide receiver Matt VandeBerg across the middle. VandeBerg juggled the ball briefly, caught it and lunged just past the first-down marker for 12 yards.
“Some of those third-down conversions we got,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said, “those were super-clutch plays.”
That one completion tipped many dominoes.
It allowed Iowa’s gassed defense, which had trouble containing dynamic Hoosiers running back Jordan Howard (22 carries, 174 yards), to get more rest.
It led to two more big Beathard completions — 11 yards to Henry Krieger Coble and a zinger for 30 yards to VandeBerg — that set up LeShun Daniels’ 1-yard touchdown run for a 28-20 Iowa lead with 10 minutes, 7 seconds remaining.
After Iowa got the ball back, Beathard rolled out left — yes, even on that gimpy groin — for a 10-yard touchdown strike to George Kittle, who leaped into the end zone for a 35-20 lead with 6:03 left.
Beathard showed that he was going to fight through the pain to keep his team perfect. With Iowa trailing 17-14 late in the first half, the quarterback went airborne over a pile of defenders for a 7-yard touchdown run. His teammates noticed.
“I didn’t know if I was going to see that from C.J.,” said VandeBerg, who was clutch himself with a team-high five catches for 68 yards. “He was able to get that touchdown, and guys can rally around that: ‘Our quarterback’s willing to go out there and do this, we need to go do this for him.’ ”
Beathard told offensive coordinator Greg Davis before the game that he felt good enough to use his legs. That’s become a game-time routine for three weeks now, with everyone wondering how effective Beathard can be. So, Davis called a quarterback draw on that big touchdown run with 17 seconds left in the first half.
“I was surprised he called it. I was just happy he called it,” Beathard said. “That shows he’s got trust in me. That shows that I have to be honest with him. Because if he had called that and I wouldn’t have been able to do it, it wouldn’t have been good for our offense.”
Beathard clinched the win when he rolled left for an 11-yard gain on second-and-9 on a designed bootleg. And we thought he wasn’t going to be able to run bootlegs — oh, his teammates didn’t think so, either.
“We didn’t know he was going to roll out like that and I’m like, ‘What are you doing? You’re supposed to be hurt,’ ” center Austin Blythe said. “That guy’s tough. He’s an athlete, he’s a competitor, and he wants to win just as bad as anyone else. The way he plays in pressure situations isn’t really a surprise.”
The Hawkeyes entered the game seeking another win in their march toward a Big Ten West title, with the College Football Playoff Committee watching somewhere. The first CFP rankings this past week tabbed Iowa as the No. 9 team in the country, but left some fans riled up when committee chairman Jeff Long said they ranked Baylor and TCU ahead of Iowa because of more explosive offenses, despite the Hawkeyes’ better win quality.
Whether Iowa impressed the pundits, we’ll find out again Tuesday — maybe. But the Hawkeyes were ready to go from the start, with Akrum Wadley zipping 65 yards around the left side on the game’s second play from scrimmage.
And Beathard, he wound up with 271 total yards — 233 passing on 19-of-31 completions and 38 rushing. He wasn’t sacked. He didn’t commit a turnover. He finished the game. And he’s 10-0 as a starter.
Now Iowa can head to the Big Ten title game by winning two of its final three regular-season games: home against Minnesota and Purdue, then the Black Friday finisher at Nebraska.
You can bet, however healthy he is, Beathard will do all he can do lead the Hawkeyes.
“We can all quit asking what percent he is, because I have no idea and certainly he doesn’t either,” Ferentz said. “He’s enough percent to look like a football player out there.”