TAMPA, Fla. — Construction equipment shredded the end zone sod that read “Iowa” in Raymond James Stadium about 3 hours after the final gun.
Florida did the same thing metaphorically the preceding 3 hours.
It was both a predictable and frustrating end to Iowa’s 2016 season. The Gators defense chewed up Iowa’s impotent offensive attack in a way we’ve seen over and over and over this season. It was noticeably bad, but easy to forget late in the year because the euphoria of victory tends to do such things.
But Iowa’s 30-3 loss to Florida really does provide the necessary lens with which to view this season, especially on offense. There’s no there there. Sure, the running game was outstanding. But without even a complementary or occasionally threatening passing attack, running games tend to stall inside the 20-yard line. That happened to Iowa three times on Monday. Once the Hawkeyes kicked a field goal, once they missed a field goal and once they were stopped at the goal line.
Let’s get the benefit-of-the-doubt portion of this column out of the way early. Iowa will struggle to recruit athletic, NFL-caliber wide receivers. Under coach Kirk Ferentz, the offense will be married to a power zone-blocking scheme that relies first, foremost and forever on line-of-scrimmage play. Therefore, game-breaking wide receivers at Iowa are developed usually after changing positions, not stepping on campus as developed players.
OK, that part’s over. It’s time now to assess the reality of the offensive situation. Iowa ranked 120th nationally in offense at season’s end. Against Florida, Iowa gained 226 yards. The passing game netted 55 yards, an Outback Bowl record low. Quarterback C.J. Beathard completed 7 of 23 passes with three interceptions. He injured his right hamstring lunging for the end zone early in the second quarter, yet fought on like an old warrior with his body full of arrows.
Some of the problems Monday were created by Beathard, no doubt. He was pressing by mid-third quarter and tossed a pick-6 and two other interceptions. But the real issue here is at wide receiver. In three of Iowa’s last four games, Iowa’s receiver corps totaled seven catches for 74 yards. On Monday it was one catch for 11 yards. At Illinois it was three for 49 yards. Michigan held Iowa wide receivers to three catches for 14 yards. Even against Nebraska, only one wide receiver caught a pass.
These types of numbers rarely happen with triple-option offenses that pass eight times a game, let alone pro-style attacks. And there’s so much blame to go around that one has to temper the negativity in a public forum. But Iowa’s best receiver is former walk-on Riley McCarron. He’s not a leading threat on the outside, but a tough, hard-working receiver who thrives in a secondary role. But when Matt VandeBerg went down after the fourth game, McCarron was forced into that role.
Other receivers saw action — Jerminic Smith, Jay Scheel, Adrian Falconer, Devonte Young, Ronald Nash — but none could become a consistent receiver. McCarron caught 42 passes for 517 yards. Smith, who started opposite McCarron, caught 23 balls for 314 yards. The other receivers totaled seven catches for 56 yards.
There are plenty of ways to look at that lack of productivity. The first is to blame the quarterback and offensive coordinator. Sure, Beathard deserves a few dings, especially on Monday, But you don’t win at blackjack very often when you’re always dealt a 7 and a 6. Greg Davis’ offense as a whole hasn’t produced numbers or breakaway threats. Some of it is constrained by Iowa’s reliance on the power running game. Some of it is caused by Davis’ desire to pass to the perimeter. Either way, it’s not producing balanced numbers in the passing game. It’s something that Ferentz recognizes.
“In a perfect world, we want to be balanced,” Ferentz said. “Some years you do a better job of that than others. This year we had to lean on the run pretty heavily.”
Then there’s the players themselves and the wide receivers coach. The numbers suggest the receivers haven’t shown near enough growth this year. Do they have enough talent? Are they capable of learning the offense? If so, why aren’t they? Is it how they’re taught? Is it wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy? Has Kennedy not prepared his receivers effectively?
Those questions rarely are asked after wins. Had Iowa beaten Florida on Monday, maybe they don’t get asked at all. Victory aroma is a perfume that covers up the stench of mediocrity. But Iowa’s fifth straight bowl loss shows that something needs to change. The passing game needs to change. The numbers point directly at the wide receiver position. Where does the responsibility lie? We’ll get Ferentz’s answer by his action — or inaction — in the coming weeks.