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Maybe Desmond could help, but Hawkeyes passing game remains on the grind

The clock is ticking on fixing passing problem, and Iowa probably is out of 14-7 wins

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  • Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz 3

IOWA CITY — Desmond King has heard the wide receiver question more than a few times during his years as a Hawkeye.

You see him return punts and kicks and, hey, that looks pretty good. Iowa should just take that skill and put it to work on offense.

Makes all the sense in the world. And it really makes sense for the Hawkeyes now with senior wide receiver Matt VandeBerg, Iowa’s top pass catcher the last two season, out for an extended period with a broken foot (out for the season if, as Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz has said, VandeBerg wants a medical hardship waiver for a return in 2016).

Well ...

“It’s a lot easier said than done,” Ferentz said.

Here are some factors that might shape that discussion: You know King, of course, as an all-American cornerback. Cornerbacks run a lot and cover wide receivers. Because Iowa has been locked into close games the last four weeks, King has played 406 of Iowa’s 419 snaps on defense.

He’s busy with that. He’s also busy returning punts and kicks. King is fourth in the Big Ten with 10.18 yards on 17 punt returns and is No. 3 in the league with 28.58 on 12 kick returns.

“He’s working hard on defense, first and foremost,” Ferentz said. “That’s a really important position he plays. You think about how many yards he ran for in the Northwestern game (73 plays on defense and seven kick and punt returns), what kind of energy and effort that took, and then, certainly, basically every week he’s done a really good job in the return game.”

Still, if the coaches should happen to ask, King’s answer would be an enthusiastic yes.

“I talked about it, but I don’t know if it’s going to happen,” King said. “The question hasn’t popped back up to me. When it does, I would seize the opportunity.”

The answer is yes from King, and, of course, it would be a yes.

During his high school career at East English Village Prep (Detroit, Mich.), King set the school’s career rushing record. As a senior, he rushed for 2,360 yards and scored 33 touchdowns.

“Yeah, I would like to play offense, for sure,” King said.

But ...

“There’s only so many snaps a guy can play,” Ferentz said. “I know Gordie Lockbaum did it back in whatever it was, 1982 or something like that, but that’s pretty hard to do. He’d try, and probably be pretty good at it, quite frankly. Maybe we need to think about it. I don’t know, but still there’s a matter of time for all those things.”

Maybe it’s time. Iowa’s passing game post-VandeBerg’s injury is kind of Gordie Lockbaum throwing to himself in 1982.

Some of quarterback C.J. Beathard’s raw numbers are respectable. In the two games with VandeBerg (who caught 65 passes in 2015 and had 19 in four games this season), Beathard has completed 36 of 58 (62 percent) for 348 yards. The 62 percent is two points higher than his season completion percentage (60.3). He’s also thrown just one touchdown pass to three interceptions.

Beathard’s yards per attempt (4.6) and pass efficiency (80.42) against Minnesota last week were his worst in 14 games, since Iowa won at Wisconsin, 10-6, last season.

Beathard was asked this week to assess his play.

“It’s hard to say. Some games have been better than others,” Beathard said. “You’re never where you want to be. I think I’ve played well in some cases, and there have been bad plays as well. Professional guys make mistakes, too. All you can do is learn from the mistakes and know you’re never going to be where you want to be.”

The passing game problems aren’t all on Beathard. This whole story is prefaced with the fact that his best wide receiver will be out for an extended period of time. Against Northwestern, the first game without VandeBerg, Beathard was sacked six times. Last week against the Gophers, Iowa receivers dropped five passes.

“I think we made strides,” Ferentz said about the passing game’s performance at Minnesota. “It may not have looked like it to you guys, but I thought we made strides from the field Saturday. Watching the film, there are a lot of things that were encouraging to me.

“ ... That’s how things are in sports. You don’t always have those breakthrough moments when you want them all the time, but if you make incremental gains, at some point, it starts looking better than it did.”

Senior wide receiver Riley McCarron has grabbed the wheel for VandeBerg. McCarron has caught 14 of his 20 passes in the last two weeks. He set career highs for receptions (eight) and receiving yards (78) against Northwestern last week, but he came into this season with eight career catches. He’s making an incredible leap in profile and there are going to be rough edges, including a pair of drops and a fumble last week.

“Honestly, it just gets down to doing your job on each play,” McCarron said. “One play at a time, focus on every single play and don’t think big picture. Definitely, stepping up is important to this team and important for me to gain the guys’ trust as well.”

Meanwhile, Desmond King is right over there. He isn’t lobbying. He’s a senior and he knows the football program isn’t a democracy. Beathard has talked about this.

“I trust the coaches and their opinions,” Beathard said. “If they come up and ask me what I think about certain situations, then I would give my opinion. But coach Ferentz and coach (offensive coordinator Greg) Davis are going to do whatever they have to do for us to win and I trust them with that.”

They know there’s no suggestion box hanging outside of Ferentz’s office. And Ferentz knows the clock is ticking on this. And everyone knows Iowa probably has used up its 14-7 victory quota for 2016.

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