Beathard must lead to get Hawkeyes back on track

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Sometime Saturday afternoon, as Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard stared up at the misty skies over Kinnick Stadium while gathering his thoughts after yet another sack, two things should have occurred to him:

Perhaps I’m partially to blame for being flat on my back.

Maybe it’s time I put the offense on said back and carry the Hawkeyes away from the abyss.

Iowa’s 38-31 loss to Northwestern was alarming because of how easily the Wildcats moved the ball, to be sure. The Hawkeyes' defense shouldn’t be absolved of blame after giving up 362 yards, 198 of them on the ground.

But the offense, despite the 5-for-5 excellence in the red zone, was too often in disarray. Iowa allowed six sacks, punted eight times and saw its last-gasp comeback attempt snuffed out by a Beathard interception as he eluded pressure and threw a poor pass.

“We’ve just got to play better team football as a whole. There’s no reason to point,” Beathard said after Iowa’s third lackluster showing in a row.

His first sentence is correct, but the second misses the mark. There is reason to point, and Beathard should be the one to do so, starting with an examination of his own play. An Iowa season in danger of spiraling away offers a prime test of the leadership abilities of its laid-back senior starting quarterback.

Beathard's teammates are eager for someone to follow. Many seemed unable to comprehend what has gone wrong the past few weeks, or how to correct it. C.J. needs to provide some clarity on that front, at least for the offense.

“C.J., he’s our leader,” tailback Akrum Wadley said. “He’s the one that’s going to give us a spark and make big plays. When he can’t really get going, then it’s hard for the whole offense to get going.”

Beathard completed 19 of 27 passes for 204 yards and a 15-yard touchdown to Riley McCarron that was a beautiful throw. No one questions his talent.

McCarron moves in for VandeBerg despite Iowa's pass game problems

His offensive line hasn’t always been up to the task of protecting him, especially when opponents blitz, which will likely become a more common occurrence. His wide receivers, now minus the injured Matt VandeBerg, are not exactly a collection of elite athletes.

Beathard must see those not as excuses but as obstacles to overcome.

He also must realize that part of the offense’s problem is his own inability to avoid sacks.

“It's a little bit of everything,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of the 14 sacks of Beathard this season. “Protection has not always been what it needs to be. Sometimes it looks like there's nothing happening — there's no rhythm or tempo to it, and we're holding the ball back there — and that's not a good thing, either.

“We're going to be in those situations. We're probably going to have to come up with better ways, probably, of getting the ball out quicker.”

McCarron, who had a career-high eight receptions Saturday as potentially Beathard’s new go-to receiver, echoed his coach’s thoughts.

“You can’t just pinpoint that on one position group or one person. It’s us getting open, the line blocking, C.J. making good decisions,” McCarron said.

“It’s hard to execute plays when you know your quarterback is getting sacked.”

Beathard has completed 74 of his 120 pass attempts (61.7 percent) for 945 yards and nine touchdowns. He has only two interceptions. He looked superb in the season's first two games, when Iowa scored 87 points while rolling over Miami of Ohio and Iowa State.

He hasn’t looked like the same player the past three weeks. In a 23-21 loss to North Dakota State, Beathard’s passes were uncharacteristically off-target.

Last week, in a 14-7 loss to Rutgers, he led Iowa on one outstanding 99-yard touchdown drive just before the half, but couldn’t sustain other possessions. Iowa is only 22 of 59 on third-down conversions (37 percent). Penalties — there have been 24 of them this year — have certainly hurt those numbers.

But Beathard can be much more productive.

He defended his awareness in the pocket after Saturday’s loss.

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“I definitely feel pressure in the pocket,” he said. “As a quarterback, you can sense certain pressure.”

As for what he sees when looking downfield, Beathard said: “I’m just trying to look at coverages and breaking down defenses.”

He’s looking a little too long at times. That needs to change.

But more than that, it’s time for Beathard to do what great quarterbacks must — make those around him better. The Hawkeye offense has its challenges. It also has upcoming games against Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska.

More coverage from Saturday's loss:

This could be Beathard’s finest hour.

Or it could be another 420 minutes of lethargic Hawkeye football, followed by a dull bowl game played well before New Year’s Day.

“I think today’s going to be a gut check,” McCarron said.

He should have been pointing at Beathard. This is his team, for better or worse.