Analysis: How the Iowa offense adjusts after Matt VandeBerg's injury

Mark Emmert
Iowa wide receiver Matt VandeBerg pulls in a 12-yard touchdown pass during the Hawkeyes' game against Iowa State at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016.

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Iowa’s top wide receiver, Matt VandeBerg, suffered a foot injury in practice Monday and is out indefinitely, coach Kirk Ferentz announced Tuesday.

It is a severe blow to an offense that has struggled to move the ball through the air in recent games. VandeBerg, a senior from Brandon, S.D., leads the Hawkeyes with 19 catches for 284 yards and three touchdowns. All other wide receivers have combined for 15 catches as that position has seen diminishing production as the season has gone on.

Hawkeye wide receivers have managed only six catches in each of the past two games -- a 23-21 loss against North Dakota State and Saturday’s 14-7 win at Rutgers. In that game, VandeBerg was limited to four receptions for 17 yards. Sophomore Jerminic Smith caught two passes for 36 yards. Senior Riley McCarron and sophomore Jay Scheel took the rest of the snaps at wide receiver but were barely targeted by quarterback C.J. Beathard.

Iowa receiver Jerminic Smith goes up to make a reception against Miami (Ohio) on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

Smith is Iowa’s top deep threat and is second among wideouts with seven catches for 97 yards. He scored his lone career touchdown in a season-opening victory over Miami of Ohio.

McCarron has six catches for 75 yards and scored on a 30-yard pass play against North Dakota State.

Scheel has only one career catch, a 12-yarder late in a blowout victory over Iowa State.

Other options to see more playing time include junior Connor Keane, sophomores Adrian Falconer and Ronald Nash, and freshman Devonte Young. Keane, Nash and Young traveled for the Rutgers game but saw no action at wide receiver. Falconer saw action last season but has yet to play this fall.

In VandeBerg’s absence, look for the Hawkeyes to rely more on senior tight end George Kittle, who had a career-high 110 receiving yards against NDSU and caught a 36-yard touchdown pass in the Rutgers game. He has been the Hawkeyes’ leader in receiving yards in each of the past two games and has 10 catches for 192 yards this season. Only one other Iowa tight end has caught a pass, however. Freshman Noah Fant has one reception for two yards.

Iowa tight end George Kittle pulls in a 9-yard touchdown pass during the Hawkeyes' game against Iowa State at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016.

The Hawkeyes also could utilize tailbacks more in the passing game. Akrum Wadley has seven catches for 92 yards and a touchdown and is a terrific runner in the open field. He occasionally lines up as a wide receiver. Derrick Mitchell Jr. has missed the past two games with injury but is Iowa’s best third-down option on passing plays, both for his blocking ability and his background as a receiver. He has two catches for seven yards and could be back this week as Iowa (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten Conference) hosts Northwestern at 11 a.m. Saturday.

Fullback Brady Ross made his first career reception at Rutgers, a six-yarder on the opening drive of the game. But Iowa rarely uses fullbacks as receiving options.

So it would seem that Smith is the best choice to try to replace VandeBerg’s production in yards. McCarron is best suited to work in the slot and could become Iowa’s best possession receiver. No one else has proven effective yet, which poses a huge challenge for a team expecting to challenge for a Big Ten West title.

“It is unfortunate that Matt will miss some time due to his injury,” Ferentz said in a university news release. “We know that Matt will work extremely hard to get back on the field as soon as possible.  We feel confident that some of our younger receivers will step up in Matt’s absence.”

That is the hope for Iowa. That also may be the necessity.