IOWA CITY, Ia. — As Iowa’s top wide receiver waited for an elevator in Kinnick Stadium’s press box, Riley McCarron was quietly frustrated on the field.
The redshirt senior from Dubuque had eight catches in the breakout game of his career, but a 38-31 loss to Northwestern canceled any potential celebrations.
McCarron capably replaced injured star Matt VandeBerg on Saturday. However, the passing game remains a problem for the reeling Hawkeyes that will require more than a former walk-on to fix.
“You can’t just pinpoint that on one position group or one person,” McCarron said after the loss.
“It’s receivers getting open, it’s the line blocking, it’s C.J. (Beathard) making good decisions. You can’t just put that on one person or one group. It’s all of us.”
More coverage from Saturday's loss
- Iowa 'capable of so much more' in 38-31 loss to Northwestern
- Iowa takeaways: The run defense still stinks
- Leistikow: Hawkeyes lose their composure, control of their season
- Beathard must lead to get Hawkeyes back on track
McCarron finished the Big Ten home opener with a game-high eight grabs for 78 yards and a touchdown. He started Saturday with six catches for 75 yards and a score on the season.
The loss of VandeBerg to a mid-week foot injury echoed through Iowa’s lineup as new names jumped into action against Northwestern’s aggressive defense.
“It’s just a matter of being prepared every week,” McCarron said. “We lost Matt VandeBerg, who is obviously a great player, and I had big shoes to fill, but I’m just trying to do the best that I can to fill his job.”
VandeBerg used a walking boot and crutches to join his fellow Iowa (3-2, 1-1) captains for the pregame coin toss. The senior was the top returner for Iowa’s 2015 receiving corps and had 19 catches for 284 yards and three scores before his injury this season, easily the top marks on the team.
With the depth chart bumped up, McCarron and starters Jerminic Smith and Jay Scheel increased their snap counts, while young targets Ronald Nash and Devonte Young were asked to contribute out wide too.
“We all felt like we needed to up our play a little bit,” Scheel said. “When an injury happens, it’s an opportunity for a lot of positions, and people need to step up — that goes for the whole team.”
Scheel made two catches for 26 yards, the first being a 22-yard leaping sideline grab that led to Akrum Wadley’s second touchdown run. Smith had the longest catch of the day in a deep 46-yard lob from Beathard, who now has to adjust to a new stable of receiving talent.
Beathard finished 19 of 27 for 204 yards, often eyeing short routes because of Northwestern’s relentless pressure and his receivers’ trouble getting separation.
“We’ve got to play better team football as a whole,” Beathard said. “There’s no reason to point at any spot because, right now, we’re just not playing well enough at any aspect of our game. We’ve got to get better.”
The Wildcats (2-3, 1-1) broke down the pocket around Beathard repeatedly, getting four sacks from senior end Ifeadi Odenigbo and forcing check-down passes to Iowa’s running backs.
The trio of Wadley, Derrick Mitchell and LeShun Daniels totaled four receptions for 16 yards. Tight end George Kittle picked up his only grab in the fourth quarter, worth 18 yards on Iowa’s final offensive series.
“It’s frustrating,” McCarron said. “It’s hard to execute plays when your quarterback is getting sacked... It’s just something that we need to fix.”
McCarron is a 5-foot-9 Dubuque Wahlert grad and used to be Beathard’s roommate. Both are fifth-year seniors, finishing their careers with the Hawkeyes. They’re pleased with their production — a 15-yard touchdown connection put Iowa ahead before halftime — but expecting better results in coming weeks.
“I thought (McCarron) did a good job last year for us as a reserve receiver, and then also played special teams in a real quiet way, but he did a great job,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said.
“Somehow we’re going to have to try to keep him a little bit more fresh, because he got worn out today. But he’s just a heck of a football player — great attitude. Everybody needs to follow his lead, because he’s really on the right track.”
For a team that talks about a “next man in” mentality, McCarron has already shown his worth. Now it’s up to the Hawkeyes to turn that into wins.
“This team is capable of so much more,” McCarron said.