Leistikow: Eight games in, Hawkeyes still aren't on same page

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Akrum Wadley thought he was an open receiver when Iowa called a trick play early in the third quarter.

“Definitely,” he said.

Riley McCarron, the Iowa receiver who was called upon to throw his first career pass after receiving a lateral, saw things differently.

“I didn’t see ‘Ak’ as open as we would’ve liked,” McCarron said. “My first instinct was just not making it worse.”

McCarron tucked the ball away and took a 5-yard loss.

“He hesitated,” Wadley said.

Iowa running back Akrum Wadley runs the ball against Wisconsin on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. Wadley finished with 44 rushing yards on 10 carries and seven receptions for 72 yards.

Whether McCarron made the right decision is up for interpretation. But it underscored the primary culprit for causing Saturday’s 17-9 loss to No. 10 Wisconsin: a systemic disconnect within Iowa’s offense.

The Hawkeye defense wasn’t great but somehow kept finding ways to give the C.J. Beathard-led offense repeated second chances.

Each time, the offense found ways to fail.

Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard wound up completing 17 of 33 passes for 153 yards against Wisconsin, with a long of 21 yards on a catch-and-run from Akrum Wadley.

In the second quarter, third-and-inches from Wisconsin’s 19-yard line became third-and-6 after a George Kittle false start on what would’ve been a quarterback sneak. Then, Beathard made a hot read against a Wisconsin blitz — connecting with McCarron for what looked initially to be an easy 24-yard touchdown — but it was ruled Iowa called timeout with the play clock near zero.

“C.J. made a great pass,” McCarron said, “but we called timeout.”

After the McCarron/Wadley mix-up, Iowa had to punt, and Wisconsin answered with a touchdown drive for a 14-6 lead.

There was little traction to be found on this day. Nine of 12 Iowa drives gained 20 yards or less; five were three-and-outs.

Brutal, followed by brutally honest.

Iowa running back Akrum Wadley runs the ball against Wisconsin on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

“The defense always comes through. … It’s up to the offense,” said Wadley, Iowa’s leading rusher (10 carries, 44 yards) and receiver (seven catches, 72 yards) Saturday. “We’ve got to be more aggressive. We’ve got to have a sense of urgency.”

Ding, ding.

Iowa’s up-tempo offense was the one thing that did click Saturday, just as it did against Northwestern on Oct. 1 before vanishing for three weeks.

The Hawkeyes picked up some pre-halftime momentum, going 51 yards on eight plays in 54 seconds in hurry-up mode to set up Miguel Recinos’ 47-yard field goal to cut the margin to 7-6.

The hurry-up clicked the second time it was tried, too, in the fourth quarter.

“It doesn’t allow the defense to get set,” McCarron said. “That was the biggest thing.”

As Wadley put it: “If it works, why not keep doing it?”

Beathard completed five consecutive passes to lead Iowa’s march into Wisconsin’s red zone.

But then, another disconnect.

With 51/2 minutes to play from Wisconsin’s 20, Iowa was met with a fourth-and-5.

I mentioned to colleagues in the press box that this was undoubtedly four-down territory. Down eight with a rare scoring chance and time running out, go for the touchdown and tying two-point conversion — and if the two misses, you still have three timeouts to get the ball back for a field goal.

But coach Kirk Ferentz saw it differently, opting instead for a Keith Duncan field-goal attempt of 38 yards — which missed.

“You have to score twice,” Ferentz said. “It gets down to that. Somehow, some way, you’re going to have to score twice.”

Score twice to win, yes. But score once — plus a conversion — for a tie and overtime, the land of untimed second chances.

A mathematical disconnect?

“The situation we were in, we felt that was the best play. Fourth-and-five against these guys is not easy, especially down there in the red zone,” Ferentz said. “We didn’t see that as a high-probability play.”

We’ll have to agree to disagree there.

But what can’t be argued is that this offense has lacked the punch that’s been needed to win tough home games — 231 yards against North Dakota State, 283 against Northwestern and 236 on Saturday. The result, the first three-game home losing streak since 2012.

Fair to blame injuries to Matt VandeBerg and Kittle?

“I don’t think it’s personnel,” said McCarron, who had six catches for 47 yards while the rest of Iowa’s wide receivers had two grabs for 12 yards. “We definitely have the guys that are capable. Just need to execute.

“We need all 11 guys on the same page. You just can’t have one guy here or there.”

After falling to 5-3, Ferentz and Hawkeye players spoke lamented leaving too many plays on the field.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin racked up 423 yards, 37 minutes of possession time and didn’t commit a penalty.

No such disconnect over there.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.