Riley McCarron caught one pass Saturday, and it wasn’t even by design.
Such is life for an Iowa wide receiver these days.
The Hawkeyes went on to defeat Illinois 28-0 anyway, which is all McCarron was focused on. But they’ve been doing it without significant contributions in the passing game most of the season.
McCarron leads the Hawkeyes with 35 catches for 382 yards. He has had only one reception each of the last two weeks, and Iowa has won both games.
“C.J. (Beathard) just kind of got rushed and so he just dropped it down to me really quick and kind of got rid of it,” McCarron said of his third-quarter catch Saturday, on a broken play that he and his quarterback improvised. “I caught it and saw some open field so I just tried to make something happen out of nothing. It was one of those weird plays. You kind of just go with the flow. … Definitely not how you draw it up, but it worked out.”
McCarron turned the quick thinking of Beathard into a key 16-yard gain on a drive that ended with a Hawkeye touchdown.
That’s the good news. The bad came in the second quarter, when McCarron reached behind him for a pass that was slightly off-target and only succeeded in deflecting the football into the hands of an Illini defender.
“I was critical of myself. I definitely could have caught that pass,” said McCarron, a senior. “So just to make up for that, definitely obviously felt better.”
McCarron was speaking of a 55-yard punt return for a touchdown that gave Iowa a 7-0 lead.
That was the biggest gain by an Iowa receiver all season. Iowa’s wideouts have combined for 63 catches, 733 yards and five touchdowns in 11 games. Matt VandeBerg is still second in yards gained among that group, and he hasn’t played since Week 4 because of injury.
So the Hawkeyes have learned to do without deep threats. Beathard, playing in a strong wind Saturday, threw for only 80 yards. It was the fourth time in his 26 starts that he has been held below 100 yards. Remarkably, Iowa has won all four of them, including last year’s season finale at Nebraska.
On Friday, the Hawkeyes (7-4, 5-3 Big Ten Conference) will wrap up the regular season by hosting No. 15 Nebraska (9-2, 6-2). The Cornhuskers are coming off a 28-7 victory over Maryland and feature five wide receivers with double-digit reception totals. In all, seven Nebraska wideouts have combined for 116 catches, 1,1819 yards (15.7 average) and 12 touchdowns.
That’s the challenge for Iowa’s secondary, whether or not Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong is healthy enough to play. He missed the Maryland game and Ryker Fyfe stepped in to pass for 220 yards.
Senior Jordan Westerkamp is Nebraska’s leading receiver, with 34 catches for 476 yards and five touchdowns despite losing two games to injury.
He snared eight passes for 85 yards and a score against Maryland.
Sophomore Stanley Morgan Jr. is an emerging threat with 28 catches for 397 yards.
The Cornhuskers are confident throwing to either when they need to pick up a vital third-down conversion.
“He’s physical. He’s a good route-runner, strong hands, he breaks tackles. I think he just does a lot of stuff for us that we need at critical times and he’s a guy you can trust to go get the ball,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said of Morgan after his team lost in overtime at Wisconsin on Oct. 29.
Morgan had five receptions for 58 yards in that one, and was the intended target on the Cornhuskers’ final pass attempt.
As for Nebraska’s depth at wide receiver, something Iowa can’t boast, Langsdorf said:
“We can rotate the guys, keep them fresh and play quite a few of them. … We just have to continue to make sure we’re on the same page.”
Iowa’s receiving corps will look to build on a few encouraging signs.
Sophomore Jerminic Smith caught two passes for 33 yards against Illinois and now has at least one catch in 11 consecutive games. Freshman Noah Fant had a career-high three catches for 25 yards and, although listed as a tight end, has been lining up outside frequently. Even tailback Akrum Wadley has a 13-game reception streak.
The return of a healthy senior tight end George Kittle on Friday would be a big boost for Beathard and his passing game.
Somehow, some way, Iowa is going to have to try to keep up with the Cornhuskers in the receiving department.
Or hope that Beathard’s string of sub-100-yard victories continues.