IOWA CITY, Iowa — The lack of confidence with Iowa’s passing attack was obvious enough that Big Ten Network analyst Matt Millen could see it from his Beaver Stadium television suite Saturday night.
Millen, a four-time Super Bowl champion player and former Detroit Lions general manager, saw Iowa avoid shots down the field in favor of short-yardage routes. It wasn’t going to work, and it didn’t in a 41-14 loss to Penn State.
“For the most part, (the receivers are) not getting open,” Millen told Landof10.com outside the stadium after the game. “If they do, it’s in a zone or they’re going to give you the underneath stuff, and they’re going to take it. Which is what I said on the air. At that point, you’ve just got to move the chains so you’ve got to take what they’re giving you, and you’re not going to move a lot. You’ve got to grind it out. It’s tough for them right now.”
Half of Iowa’s 18 completions Saturday went to starting receivers Jerminic Smith (five for 85 yards) and Riley McCarron (four for 42). But many of the patterns run were short, simple routes or screen passes to running backs Akrum Wadley or LeShun Daniels. Wadley had five catches (32 yards) and Daniels had two for 36 yards.
That’s a recipe for failure, Millen said.
“You’re trying to live off of screens? Not going to happen,” Millen said. “That’s a tough place to be in.
“They need help offensively. They can’t get it. The receiving corps is … terrible. That’s just the way it is.”
Iowa’s healthy wide receiver corps averages only 91 yards per game. Matt VandeBerg, who is out for the season with a broken foot, averaged 71 yards a contest in the first four games. His injury forced younger players like Jerminic Smith, Jay Scheel and Adrian Falconer to grow up quickly. Falconer saw his first extended action on Saturday after a season-long injury. Neither he nor Scheel had a reception.
Iowa’s offense ranks 106th nationally in passing yards per game at 182.9. The Hawkeyes (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten) are 81st with completions over 20 yards (26) and 82nd in completions over 30 yards (13). Iowa’s yards per attempt is 7.0, ranking 79th.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz appeared both frustrated and resigned with his passing game’s lack of success.
“We’re looking for answers,” Ferentz said. “We spent the last two weeks looking. Certainly we didn’t advance far enough (Saturday). We’ll keep pushing. We’ve got the players we’ve got. We’ll try to coach them a little better and try to get them to play a little bit better.
“The cavalry’s not coming. We’re going to play with the guys that we have and try to find the answers. We certainly didn’t have them (Saturday). At times we looked OK, but not good enough, certainly.”
Quarterback C.J. Beathard was a second-team all-Big Ten selection last year with 2,809 yards and 17 touchdowns. Through nine games, Beathard has 1,584 yards and 13 touchdowns. His completion percentage has dropped from 61.6 to 59.9. This year he’s routinely throwing the ball away without anywhere to go.
“You’ve got to help your quarterback,” Millen said. “He’s still a good player. That kid, he’ll play at the next level. You’ve got to be able to give him something. There’s nothing there.”
Along with VandeBerg’s injury, tight end George Kittle has played sparingly since a foot injury at Purdue on Oct. 15. Of Beathard’s top six targets in 2015, Kittle is the only one seeing action. And he barely can walk.
Kittle didn’t make excuses for the passing offense’s failures but acknowledged the overall limitations.
“We have a young group and we’ve asked a lot out of them this season, especially with Matt going down,” Kittle said. “They’ve had to grow up quick, but it’s hard in the Big Ten because he gets hurt in the Big Ten season and we had a lot of guys that’s got to step up quick. We’ve got a lot of guys learning, and I feel like they’ve gotten better every single week, our wide receivers have.
“Jerm (Smith) made a big play at the end of the game, and that’s all we can ask out of our guys, to keep stepping up, keep making plays and get open. A lot of teams play man-to-man on third down so we’re counting on a lot of guys to get open. I think we’re trying.”