IOWA CITY, Ia. — Wisconsin’s all-white uniforms crept up toward the line of scrimmage Saturday as the 10th-ranked visitors prepared to blitz Iowa’s struggling offense.
A false start flag on injured tight end George Kittle had already ruined Iowa’s third-and-one call. Which receiver would the Hawkeyes turn to?
Quarterback C.J. Beathard found former roommate Riley McCarron as Wisconsin pinched down on the next play, and the pass broke a slant route free and let Kinnick Stadium briefly believe the divisional game was about to be tied.
But with the play clock expiring, Iowa’s sideline called a last-gasp timeout and the would-be 24-yard touchdown was wiped away.
Just how badly are the Hawkeyes' (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten Conference) wide receivers struggling? The play that painfully didn’t count was probably their best Saturday.
“You can always do stuff to help,” Beathard said. “The bye week is going to be much-needed to get guys healthy and work on getting better with our receivers. Better chemistry and all that kind of stuff. All you can do is go to work.”
Effects from the late-September foot injury to top target Matt VandeBerg are still lingering for Iowa’s offense. McCarron has taken his place as Beathard’s go-to guy, but even after six receptions for 47 yards against Wisconsin (5-2, 2-2), the Dubuque Wahlert grad is 184th in FBS in total receiving yards.
That’s a lot of replacement production for a former walk-on (McCarron) following a former grayshirt (VandeBerg). And the rest of Iowa’s scholarship receiving corps totaled two catches for 12 yards Saturday.
“I think the people involved are capable,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s such a fine line. It’s just us growing a little bit more, maybe getting our timing down a little bit better.”
Iowa and Rutgers (2-6, 0-5) are the only two teams in the Big Ten without a representative among the nation’s top 200 receivers in yards per game. The two regulars opposite McCarron — sophomores Jerminic Smith and Jay Scheel — have yet to make a consistent impact.
“We’ll continue to look at ways to maybe free some guys up or find some easier throws,” Ferentz said.
Well, here are three possible solutions for Iowa’s receiving success, with the last one looking long-term:
Sharpen short reads and routes
The Iowa running back proves affable again when interviewed by reporters. He also said Minnesota is a must-win.
This is the easiest and most obvious fix for the Hawkeyes. A deep-ball threat has yet to materialize, and running back Akrum Wadley was the team’s top receiver against Wisconsin, grabbing seven passes for 72 yards.
Most of McCarron’s work against Wisconsin came on short screens or dump-offs. Scheel’s only catch came at the line of scrimmage.
No reception has been longer in Big Ten play than Jerminic Smith’s 46-yard grab against Northwestern.
“I think we had a couple close calls that would have helped us,” Ferentz said. “Kind of bang-bang type plays where we’re just a little bit off. Somehow, some way, we’re going to have to push that over the top.”
The Badgers frequently added safety and linebacker help up front as they didn’t need to double-cover Iowa’s receivers, and Kittle didn’t play after halftime. Second-string tight end Peter Pekar has yet to catch a pass this season.
Hawkeye receivers have struggled to get separation from defensive backs. Those problems are exacerbated by an offensive line using six different starting lineups over eight games. Quick decisions have to become even quicker.
“Pass protection has been a point of emphasis for us the past few weeks,” junior guard Sean Welsh said. “We haven’t done a great job of keeping the quarterback clean. It’s something we’ve been working on, but it’s a work in progress.”
Beathard finished 17 of 33 for 153 yards and was sacked twice Saturday. That’s a short performance for the senior’s yards per pass attempt, but more quick completions to allow receivers to make catch-and-run plays could be key.
“Getting guys wide open against a good team is really difficult,” Ferentz said. “Getting open quick enough — and then still having the opportunity to get the ball in there — we’re going to just keep banging away.”
Experiment with youth
C.J. Beathard provides his insight into the ongoing troubles for the Iowa offense.
Sophomore receiver Ronald Nash is listed behind McCarron on the depth chart. He has as many receptions this season (two) as fullbacks Austin Kelly and Brady Ross have totaled.
Adrian Falconer burned a possible second-year redshirt by playing late in the Oct. 15 victory of Purdue.
And true freshman Devonte Young is back to returning kicks with senior star Desmond King, but his speed has yet to become a target on offense.
“He’s as far along as I’ve seen any freshman receiver since I’ve been here,” McCarron said of Young two weeks ago.
So, where are they?
Opportunities have been few and far between for the untested youngsters, with preference given to the starters who have shown strong run-blocking ability. Behind them is a list of interesting names — Jonathan Parker, Ryan Boyle and Connor Keane among them — with different levels of injury or inexperience.
Only Iowa’s coaches know if those receivers are ready for playing time, but fans would surely welcome new faces. Ferentz said Saturday that the bye week could be key for those new players to rise up, like Iowa’s suddenly useful true freshman tight end.
“We have a bunch of guys that haven’t played much that are probably capable of helping us,” Ferentz said. “Hopefully we can push them forward this week as well … Noah Fant comes to mind. He’s still a young guy, but I think he’s progressed. This will be a big opportunity for him to keep pushing forward.”
Wait until 2017
Sitting on the sidelines isn’t much of a solution, but Iowa is already two-thirds through its regular season. The future looks positive for the struggling unit, as Ferentz confirmed earlier this month that VandeBerg would likely use a medical redshirt to return to Iowa’s lineup.
The Brandon, S.D., native was the top returning receiver from 2015 and is still tied for fifth among Hawkeyes in Big Ten receptions, despite only playing against Rutgers.
Recruiting has pulled in three prep commitments at receiver, all with massively productive senior seasons: Brandon Smith (6-foot-3, 198 pounds) had 290 yards and five touchdowns receiving in the recruiting hotbed of Mississippi on Friday night. Beau Corrales (6-4, 205) and Gavin Holmes (5-11, 180) are among Texas’ top receiving targets too, averaging nearly double-digit catches as three-star prospects.
The Hawkeyes are excited about those high-schoolers, but obviously want a quicker fix. Saturday’s 17-9 loss to Wisconsin showed that.
“You want to score more than nine points in a game, and you want to finish drives,” Beathard said. “When you have the opportunity to kick four field goals, you’d like those to be four touchdowns.”
Receiving corps in conference
Iowa’s receiving leaders since the start of Big Ten play on Sept. 24:
Name Rec. Yards Avg. Long TD
R. McCarron 24 261 10.9 42 2
A. Wadley 13 134 10.3 30 0
G. Kittle 9 144 16.0 36 1
J. Smith 9 125 13.9 46 0
J. Scheel 4 44 11.0 22 0
N. Fant 4 33 8.2 14 1
D. Mitchell 4 17 4.2 10 0
M. VandeBerg 4 17 4.2 7 0