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PISCATAWAY, N.J. — C.J. Beathard just threw a gorgeous back-shoulder pass to Jerminic Smith. It was the kind of play that brings tears to offensive coordinator’s eyes.
In the face of a blitz, Beathard gunned it to Smith along Iowa’s sideline, gaining 24 yards on a third-and-10. It’s the kind of pass play you see in a lot of games and probably take for granted. For Iowa’s offense the past two games, this play was worth framing.
You caught the part about the blitz. Beathard certainly caught that part. Middle linebacker Deonte Roberts broke through the line of scrimmage and had a free run right into Beathard’s face mask. Shortly after that play, the ESPN broadcast ran a reel of hits on the Iowa QB.
So, when Iowa’s passing game did work in the Hawkeyes’ 14-7 win at Rutgers, it kind of didn’t work.
There were two sacks and several hits on Beathard, some of which came after he took off on a scramble. One of the sacks could clearly be labeled as a “coverage” sack (beginning of the fourth quarter) and that was followed up a play later with a blitz and a sack.
“I thought I could have gotten the ball off a little quicker,” Beathard said. “There were a couple of mistakes that were on me. A lot of those were just them getting good coverage down field and pressuring me.”
Beathard never looked visibly frustrated, but his play was sped up at times. He was trying to squeeze blood out of that football at High Point Solutions Stadium last weekend.
“When things aren’t going well sometimes, players try to do too much. Good players do,” Ferentz said. “The best thing he can do is just play like he plays. When he does that, he’s absolutely fine. But there are times he’s trying to do too much and make something out of whatever situation it might be.”
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Beathard finished 12 of 23 for 162 yards, a TD and no interceptions. Beathard’s 125.68 pass efficiency was his lowest in 10 games (119.01 vs. Maryland last season). He’s finished with his lowest back-to-back completion percentages (50 percent last week; 52 percent this week) since Northwestern and Maryland last year (42.9 and 48.4).
Yet, Beathard has been the best and most consistent performer on offense. In the loss against North Dakota State, Pro Football Focus gave Beathard a positive grade. He’s been a positively graded player every week. Things obviously looked a whole lot better when the offense exploded for 12 TDs in the first two games.
“Each game you play tells its own little story,” Beathard said. “We didn’t play as well this week and last week as we wanted to, but games are going to go that way. Obviously, we want to play better than we did today offensively.”
Another example of the passing game working but not working came during Iowa’s 99-yard drive. On a second-and-2 at RU’s 43, Beathard threw a pass that was tipped at the line of scrimmage. Wide receiver Matt VandeBerg came back to the ball and grabbed it for a 12-yard gain.
Iowa (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) caught Rutgers with a beautifully schemed play for the TD. VandeBerg ran a route along the line of scrimmage, pulling free safety Kiy Hester out of position. Tight end George Kittle showed block initially and then ran a wheel route into wide open space for a 36-yard TD, completing an eight-play, 99-yard monster of a drive.
“That was one of the very first plays we ran on Monday,” Kittle said. “We game planned that really hard and I’m glad we did.”
The play caught Rutgers being aggressive. Ferentz talked about “makeable” plays coming out of NDSU. This was putting one of those in the bank.
The regularly scheduled pass plays were more of a struggle and few and far between against the Scarlet Knights (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten).
Kittle might be Iowa’s hottest player right now. The senior has caught seven passes for 166 yards in the last two games. VandeBerg has been his usual productive self, catching eight passes for 56 yards the last two weeks.
Beyond those two? Six players caught passes from Beathard against Rutgers. That count went two wide receivers, two running backs, a tight end and fullback Brady Ross.
Junior Peter Pekar has settled in as the No. 2 TE and he’s being used exclusively as a blocker, with no targets yet this season. Last year, Iowa had Kittle and Henry Krieger-Coble, now with the Denver Broncos, vacuuming TDs and first downs from the tight end spot. Against NDSU, three wide receivers caught passes.
Sometimes, the Hawkeyes bog down with Beathard holding the ball too long and taking a sack. Sometimes, it’s an offense looking for fifth gear.
But back to Ferentz on Beathard and his senior QB trying to push just the right buttons for an offense that has scored just 35 points the last two games.
“There’s no sin in punting the ball sometimes,” Ferentz said. “Throw it out of bounds, second-and-10 is OK. Third-and-10, that’s better than a sack. Negative yardage plays just aren’t good and then physical shots you don’t have to take ... not that you should play scared out there, but there are certain times where it’s just smart.”
Beathard and the Hawkeyes’ passing offense are trying to find change in the couch cushions right now and, at times, it’s not pretty.