IOWA CITY, Iowa — C.J. Beathard best described Iowa’s offensive inefficiency by avoiding political correctness on the witness stand.
No, the quarterback wasn’t on trial Tuesday although at times he probably felt like it. A few days removed from the Hawkeyes’ stunning 23-21 defeat to North Dakota State, Beathard was asked whether he felt pressure on a specific backside blitz. About nine minutes into the game, North Dakota State linebacker Pierre Gee-Tucker looped untouched around Iowa left tackle Cole Croston and blasted into Beathard’s back. Beathard’s arm was going forward and the ball floated to Bison linebacker MJ Stumpf, who brought it back 21 yards for a touchdown.
Instead of dishing a sanitized cliche about the team’s overall lack of execution, Beathard gave an honest assessment.
“That’s a blitz we should handle,” Beathard said. “For whatever reason, we didn’t handle it. We see it all the time in practice. Our own guys bring that blitz, and we should pick it up. It just didn’t get picked up.”
Few quarterbacks are willing to dispense blame to another player, and Beathard never called out anyone by name. He’s owned his mistakes countless times so he’s willing to hold himself accountable, too. The early play impacted the game’s outcome. More importantly, if the Hawkeyes can’t do a better job of protecting Beathard, he won’t stay healthy. And there goes the season.
Beathard fought through injuries last year and still played in all 14 Iowa games. After the season, Beathard had sports hernia surgery that took months before he fully recovered. But the Hawkeyes didn’t help him up front late in the team’s final two games. Michigan State and Stanford combined to sack him 10 times. Iowa gave up 30 sacks, second most in the Big Ten. Already, opponents have six on the Hawkeyes, more than any other league team outside of Illinois, Maryland and Northwestern.
Still, some analysts, like ESPN’s Ed Cunningham, ranked Iowa as the nation’s best offensive line entering the season. Offensive line coach Brian Ferentz bristled at that suggestion in August.
“I have more questions than maybe the rest of the world, and I’m certainly not as blindly optimistic as a lot of the prognosticators are,” Brian Ferentz said.
Of Beathard’s 26 dropbacks on Saturday, he was pressured on 10, according to Pro Football Focus’ Ryan Smith. Beathard was sacked twice, hit another time, pressured three times and fell on the ball on a wayward snap. He scrambled another time for a first down and injured his left shoulder. He left the game and then returned five plays later but said Tuesday he still experiences pain.
Iowa’s offense was a wreck last week in all areas with 17 mental mistakes, Beathard said. The Hawkeyes’ first two games netted only 10 combined.
“We had way too many plays like that where we had an opportunity to execute them and didn’t get it done,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Wednesday on his weekly radio show. “We have to do a better job of that this week of moving forward. If we do that, we’ll have a great opportunity. But if we don’t, then you’re really leaving the door open for a bad outcome.”
Continuity has evaded Iowa along the offensive line, which has led to a few communication problems. Center James Daniels has missed the last two games. Guard Sean Welsh — the Hawkeyes’ best lineman — left midway through Iowa’s second game and didn’t play last week. Both have practiced and expect to start this week.
Iowa had communication issues up front in the first week against Miami of Ohio, which led to a jarring hit on Beathard. But the unit was starting to gain traction before the injuries. Now they need to play catch-up for Iowa to achieve its goal of repeating as Big Ten West Division champions. It can be done.
Several times last year, Iowa juggled its starting lineup. In perhaps the most extreme case, Iowa rushed for 294 yards at Northwestern without either of its starting offensive tackles available.
“If you want to go back to last year, last year’s team really did a nice job of navigating a lot of tricky situations that way,” Kirk Ferentz said. “Typically when you have a really good season, you go through pretty clean injury-wise, and that was hardly the case, as all of us know, last year. How you handle those kinds of situations, a tough call or a bad bounce of the ball, those kinds of things, that’s football, and really that determines success, how you can navigate through those things.
“We didn’t do it well enough Saturday. I’m expecting both Sean and James to be back in there, but if they’re not, then the guys that are in there have to get it done, and hopefully they’re play at a better level this week than they did last week.”