IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s leader in catches is now on crutches, and if you’re wondering where the offense goes from here, well, you’re not alone.
The Hawkeye passing game suffered a severe blow Monday when wide receiver Matt VandeBerg injured his foot in practice. Coach Kirk Ferentz revealed Tuesday that it likely will cost the senior from Brandon, S.D., the rest of the regular season.
“I think he might have a chance bowl-game time, that type of thing," Ferentz said. "At least over the next month-plus, I think we’re looking at him being out.”
Meanwhile, Iowa (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) must prepare for a homecoming contest against Northwestern (1-3, 0-1) at 11 a.m. Saturday (ESPNU). The Hawkeyes enter the game already struggling to move the ball through the air, a challenge that unexpectedly got much worse. VandeBerg leads Iowa 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. Against Rutgers on Saturday, 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.
The dropoff from VandeBerg to the other Hawkeye wide receivers — in terms of skill and experience — is precipitous. On Tuesday, with the shocking news still fresh to players and coaches, no one seemed exactly sure how that position will shake out during the season’s final eight games.
“I’m just anxious to see how some of the guys who may not have played as much, how they respond,” senior tailback LeShun Daniels Jr. said. “We know that as running backs, we’re going to have to be able to run the ball consistently throughout the entire ballgame to help out the passing game.”
"We want to get back to ... establishing the run early," Iowa's left tackle says.
That would be one way to offset VandeBerg’s loss: to simply grind down teams with Daniels and junior Akrum Wadley finding holes behind a healthy offensive line. It would require much more proficiency than Iowa has shown thus far, however. The Hawkeyes are averaging 182 yards per game on the ground to rank 49th nationally among FBS teams.
Moving the ball through the air will still be a necessity. But how?
The good news for the Hawkeyes is that they haven’t been overly reliant on wide receivers to generate passing yards in the past four years. In 2011, led by Marvin McNutt, Iowa’s wideouts contributed 79 percent of the team’s passing yards. That figure declined to 54 percent the next season, and then was 52, 59 and 59. This year, it’s at 60 percent through four games.
Smith remains 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.
He is expected to stay put at his split end position. It’s what happens elsewhere that will have Hawkeye coaches tinkering.
McCarron has six catches for 75 yards and scored on a 30-yard pass play against North Dakota State. He is more at home lining up outside but also could assume the possession receiver role that VandeBerg has thrived in. McCarron, a one-time walk-on, stands just 5-foot-9, 186 pounds, but has impressed teammates such as star cornerback Desmond King.
“You have to be either quick or elusive or someone that can go get the ball,” King said of receivers who succeed despite size limitations. “He may be short, but he plays big. He loves to go up and get the ball at the highest point. He tries to win every rep at receiver, and that’s what we need out of our receivers at all times.”
Scheel has only one career catch, a 12-yarder late in a blowout victory over Iowa State. He has been listed as Smith’s backup, but also has been practicing as a slot receiver.
“We'll just try to do what's best and put the guys wherever it fits the scheme, fits the personnel groups we have out there,” Ferentz said.
Other options to see more playing time at wide receiver include junior Connor Keane, sophomore Ronald Nash and freshman Devonte Young. They traveled for the Rutgers game but saw no action at wide receiver. Sophomore Adrian Falconer saw action last season but has yet to play this fall because of injury, Ferentz revealed Tuesday.
“I haven’t gotten as many reps with Ronald or with Devonte, but that will soon change and that chemistry will continue to improve,” Beathard said. “I’ve got full faith in those guys to do a good job when they’re in there.”
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. The Hawkeyes would love to find a second option at that position, as they had last year when Henry Krieger-Coble formed a potent combination with Kittle. Junior Peter Pekar has been seeing a lot of snaps, albeit exclusively as a blocking tight end.
Ferentz said that Jon Wisnieski has returned to practice after a preseason injury, but is still catching up on his conditioning.
“Whatever is going to give us an opportunity to be more explosive as an offense, we’d like to do that,” Beathard said. “George is a great option for us at tight end. If you could possibly get a couple guys like that at tight end, that’d be great. We’re working on moving along another guy right now.”
The Hawkeyes also could utilize tailbacks more in the passing game. 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 wide receiver. He has two catches for seven yards and is on schedule to play Saturday. Ferentz said Mitchell is still considered a running back, and that there is no plan to shift him back to wideout. He also said there has been no thought given to designing a play or two that would include King, a terrific kick returner, as a wide receiver.
“This is hardly a crisis stage,” Ferentz finally said, after being asked about seemingly every possible receiver scenario. “We're all really sorry that Matt got hurt, don't get me wrong, I'm not minimizing that. But hey, we're going to play. We've got to play.”
Fullback Brady Ross made his first career reception at Rutgers, a six-yarder on the opening drive of the game on a play that was scripted the night before. But Iowa rarely uses fullbacks as receiving options. Ross, a redshirt freshman, joked about that Tuesday.
“We have a lot of really good athletes on our team. I don’t think designing plays to get the 250-pound fullback the ball is No. 1 on the priority list,” Ross said. “I sure hope that in the future we might be able to find ways to get me and Drake (Kulick) the ball. But at the end of the day, our job is to block.”
VandeBerg was injured on a practice play in which he wasn’t even going to get the ball, Beathard said.
“He was going all out in the scout look and made a wrong cut,” Beathard said. “It seemed harmless, but he cut wrong and we saw him limping off the field after that.”
By Monday afternoon, VandeBerg was back among his teammates offering encouragement, Ross said.
“Whenever we’re having a bad practice, he’s getting us going. He really sets a great example for everybody. It breaks your heart as a team to see that,” Ross said of the injury.
“If you would have talked to him (Monday) afternoon, other than the crutches, you would have never knew that he was hurt because he’s really staying upbeat and trying to stay positive, and that’s just who he is.”
Now, VandeBerg needs to help forge a replacement for himself. It’s no easy task. No other Hawkeye wide receiver has proven effective yet, which poses a huge obstacle for a team expecting to challenge for a Big Ten West title.
“I just think of it as an opportunity for guys to come in and get better,” sad Beathard, putting a positive spin on a trying two days for his team. “I expect them to be where they need to be and if they’re not, I’ll get with them on the sidelines and correct that as soon as possible.”