IOWA CITY, Iowa — Noah Fant planted his foot and broke toward the goal post. It was in that motion that what seemed nearly impossible for almost four quarters Saturday finally happened.
An Iowa receiver got open in the end zone. For a second the Hawkeyes celebrated a touchdown, but a replay would show the football touched the ground before the Iowa tight end caught it.
If anything sums up the biggest problem facing the Iowa offense, it was then, in the final quarter of a 17-9 loss to No. 10 Wisconsin. Not much is going right for Iowa when it puts the ball in the air, even when it appears to work.
“We knew going into it they would be tough to move the ball against,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said, “but I think we should have moved the ball a little better than we did today.”
It was in what essentially served as an elimination game in the Big Ten West Division. A game typically defined by three yards and a pile of dust was decided by the forward pass.
Three Badgers caught a pass of at least 26 yards. No Hawkeyes did.
Both offenses struggled for long stretches to run the football. Wisconsin kept moving the football because its receivers kept getting open. Iowa kept going to the sideline because the receivers couldn’t get separation until heading back to the huddle.
“Getting guys wide open against a good team is really difficult,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said after the game.
This isn’t new. The passing game did make some progress in recent weeks, but it wasn’t at the same rate as the rest of the team. The Hawkeyes rushed for 365 yards at Purdue last week. They didn’t throw for it.
Wisconsin dared Iowa to pass the football on Saturday. Cornerbacks were in press coverage. Safeties were closing in on the line of scrimmage. This is part of the reason why the Hawkeyes couldn’t establish their running game.
Iowa needed a big passing play to loosen up the Badgers. It never came. When Iowa tried to go deep, wide receiver Jay Scheel dropped a pass he needed to catch.
Nothing came easy. It never seemed like Iowa was truly a threat to get into the end zone. The scoreboard said the game was close. The play on the field said otherwise. An 8-point lead never seemed so insurmountable.
“We have to score (more than nine points) and finish drives,” Beathard said. “When you have four opportunities to kick field goals you would like those to be touchdowns.”
There is no easy solution. The best receiver is out. The second-best passing target is hobbled and spent large parts of the game on the bench.
When tight end George Kittle joins wide out Matt VandeBerg on the sideline, the top six pass catchers from last season are gone. It’s not hard to figure out why Beathard is averaging 160 passing yards per game and only topped 200 yards once since the VandeBerg injury.
The coaching staff isn’t in MacGyver mode, needing to defuse a bomb with only a paperclip and chewing gum. But the options are limited. Wide receiver depth was a concern entering the season. Big Ten play is showing why. It begs the question if this is something the team can fix with only five games left.
“The people involved are capable,” 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. We’ll continue to look at ways to maybe free some guys up or find some easier throws.”
The quick passing game is all that’s worked in recent weeks. It’s what got the offense moving in the fourth quarter, but it didn’t get the offense out of neutral before then.
The bye week comes at a good time. Something needs to be done.
Wisconsin kept Iowa in the game, but the Hawkeyes couldn’t take advantage. All the Badgers needed was 256 passing yards to win. The bar the Hawkeyes needed to clear wasn’t high, but they never came close to clearing it, not with Beathard throwing for 153 yards.
That’s not easy to swallow. It likely won’t change until the aerial attack learns to take flight. If it can at all.