IOWA CITY, Iowa — When watching the Iowa-Minnesota game, Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz wasn’t fixated on the fact his team threw for only 142 yards.
“We took strides,” Ferentz said. “It may not have looked like it to (the media), but I thought we made strides from the field Saturday. And then watching the film, there are a lot of things that were encouraging to me.”
Iowa did make strides in the 14-7 victory, especially in the run defense and on the offensive line.
But the passing game is still a work in progress. It’s yet to take off since wide receiver Matt VandeBerg broke his foot. It’s arguably the biggest area Iowa needs to work on.
Here are five things Iowa can do to get the aerial attack off the ground.
Get Beathard going
Quarterback C.J. Beathard is the engine that makes the passing game hum. In the last two games he is completing 62 percent of his passes for 348 passing yards with 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions.
It’s why talk is starting about his draft stock dropping. Beathard was honest about his play when giving a self-assessment.
“Some games have been better than others,” Beathard said. “You are never where you want to be. I think I’ve played well in some cases. There has been bad play as well, even the professional guys do that, make mistakes. All you can do is try and learn from those mistakes and try and get better from that.”
It’s not all clicking, but the pavement for the path to get Beathard back on track was laid last Saturday. The Hawkeyes relied on a short, quick passing game, and when Beathard could throw right away he was at his best.
“Any time you can run the ball and get the quick passing game going, just a three-step drop for C.J., that’s simple plays that we should be able to execute on a regular basis,” Iowa wide receiver Riley McCarron said.
ESPN sideline reporter Rocky Boiman said during the Minnesota telecast that Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis wanted Beathard to look at his first two receiving options and then either throw it away or scramble.
Davis wants Beathard to play fast. The short passing game plays into that notion.
Getting Beathard time to throw
Moving Boone Myers to left tackle, Cole Croston to right tackle and Ike Boettger inside to left guard was done with more than just the run game in mind.
It was designed to give Beathard more time in the pocket. The offensive line was better in pass protection against Minnesota. The Hawkeyes allowed only one sack.
It also helped that Iowa went with quick passes. There was enough time in the short passing game for Beathard to release the football.
“The line was protecting better and I was getting the ball out quicker,” Beathard said. “The play callers were allowing us to get the ball out quicker as well.”
Iowa must expand on it. The passing game can’t thrive with just short passes. Beathard had a season low 4.6 yards per pass attempt last week.
The offensive line must be able to protect long enough to give Beathard time to take shots down the field. When given the chance Beathard must be on target. That wasn’t always the case with the Golden Gophers, especially in the end zone as a video review showed.
Life after VandeBerg
Iowa lost VandeBerg on Sept. 26. The Hawkeyes are starting to readjust without their top receiver. McCarron is now stepping up as the top receiving target. He’s caught 14 passes for 133 yards and a touchdown in the last two games.
“Riley McCarron has done a good job when he was in there,” Beathard said. “He’s getting open and making plays. He is really good in the run game at blocking and cracking on safeties.”
Iowa needs more than McCarron. Tight end George Kittle is getting double teamed, something Beathard was quick to point out at media availability on Tuesday. That won’t change until more players step up. The other Iowa wide receivers have 9 receptions for 124 yards the last two weeks.
The Hawkeyes need other receivers to do more. It will help the passing game and likely help make Kittle more of a threat.
Dropping the drops from the passing game
Dropped passes were a problem for Iowa last week. The Hawkeyes had 4. McCarron dropped 2 passes and lost a fumble.
“Those plays are obviously something I can’t do,” McCarron said. “It’s not letting (it happen). It’s focus, but yeah, anytime we have something like that it’s frustrating.”
There isn’t much wiggle room in the passing game for success. The Hawkeyes can’t afford self-inflicted problems if it’s to get going.
Moving the chains
Iowa is 89th nationally on third down. The Hawkeyes are converting 36.7 percent of the time. The reliance on the short passing game and the rushing attack was designed to help put Iowa into more manageable third downs with Minnesota. It really didn’t work. Iowa was 6 of 17 on third down and averaged 7.1 yards to go on third down.
Film review led Beathard to say he thinks Iowa isn’t far off from getting better on third down.
“It wasn’t great statistically, but we had a couple that we need 6 yards and we (gained) 5-and-a-half (yards) or we need 10 and George gets 9-and-a-half (yards). A couple of situations like that. I think we were definitely better there.”
Beathard sounds a lot like Ferentz. Iowa is close, but it’s not showing up. The Hawkeyes knows they’re getting to the point of the season where the progress needs to translate to Saturdays.
“Obviously the clock is running right now,” Ferentz said. “We’re running a really tight race here. We’ve only got six weeks left, so we’re pushing as fast and as hard as we can.”