IOWA CITY, Iowa — C.J. Beathard’s final dropback against Northwestern was like so many of his others on Saturday.
The Iowa quarterback stood in the shotgun and immediately felt pressure from his left. All of his receivers were covered. You can find that scenario in virtually every drive in every quarter from any of Iowa’s last three games.
Down 38-31 on third-and-6 from Northwestern’s 47, Beathard stepped up in the pocket as the edge collapsed once again. Perhaps the freewheeling Beathard thought he saw tight end George Kittle break free to his right. Or maybe he just felt pressed to make a play. But Kittle wasn’t open; he was shoehorned between cornerback Trae Williams and the sideline. Beathard could have run for maybe 3 or 4 yards but instead fired toward Kittle.
Williams read the play perfectly, cut in front of Kittle and intercepted the pass.
“I stepped up in the pocket and tried to hit George there,” Beathard said.
Game over. Beathard’s infallibility tarnished, fans have unlocked their sheds and found their 2014 pitchforks and torches. Iowa’s season is falling apart one bull rush at a time.
Iowa’s problems are magnified in a three-game rut that runs counter to the swagger Beathard brought to the program in 2015. But he’s also the one who can save it, just as he did last year.
After a polarizing 2014 campaign in which Beathard and former quarterback Jake Rudock split reps and inadvertently divided the locker room, Beathard became the sole starter in 2015. Rudock transferred to Michigan.
The move was mutually beneficial. As a graduate senior, Rudock excelled under Jim Harbaugh’s tutelage and led the Wolverines to a 10-win campaign. Beathard became Iowa’s savior. Every week he seemingly rescued the Hawkeyes, displaying uncommon toughness in whipping Northwestern despite a groin injury so severe he couldn’t practice and only could hobble.
Beathard guided the Hawkeyes to a school-record 12 wins and an unbeaten regular season. Even in a heartbreaking 16-13 Big Ten Championship Game loss to Michigan State, Beathard connected on an 85-yard touchdown pass that traveled 57 yards in the air. He was C.J. (insert salty adjective) Beathard, and everyone fell in line.
But his offseason wasn’t perfect. He had sports hernia surgery in January, but in the summer said he still wasn’t 100 percent. Beathard sustained a shoulder injury in April and a sprained knee in August. It’s apparent the injuries have diminished his quickness.
Beathard rushed for 468 yards last year (not including sacks), but this year he has just 82. With five of his top six receivers from 2015 graduated or on the sideline, Beathard has been forced to hold on to the ball longer because his receivers are struggling to get open. He hasn’t been able to evade the pass rush, has been sacked 14 times, second most in the Big Ten, and still must face three teams that average at least 3.0 sacks per game. It’s adding to the Hawkeyes’ offensive inefficiency.
“Protection has not always been what it needs to be,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Sometimes it looks like there’s nothing happening, there’s no rhythm or tempo to it, and we’re holding the ball back there, and that’s not a good thing, either.”
Beathard’s passing statistics actually are better now than last season. He’s completing 61.7 percent of his passes (61.6 last year), for 945 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions. He finished with 2,809 yards, 17 scores and five picks last year. His efficiency rating is 149.23, up from 139.52.
Those numbers don’t matter, however. Just look at former Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi. In 2009, he passed for 17 touchdowns and 15 interceptions — including four that went the other way for a score — and completed 56.3 percent of his passes. In 2010, Stanzi passes for 3,004 yards, 25 touchdowns, four interceptions and completed 64.0 percent. But Iowa finished 11-2 in 2009 and 8-5 in 2010, so the perception is that Stanzi’s 2009 as more successful.
So how does Beathard avoid the same fate as Stanzi? He must make winning plays in the clutch. He did it all last year, from a series at Iowa State to diving for an 8-yard gain and quickly calling timeout to set up a game-winning 57-yard field goal against Pittsburgh. Beathard’s toughness carried an average offense as did his playmaking ability. He was drilled diving over the Indiana goal line to give Iowa a halftime lead last year and made countless plays to lift the Hawkeyes over Minnesota.
The first two weeks this season were just as grand. Beathard completed a combined 20 of 25 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns in the first halves of those games. He executed a 99-yard drive at Rutgers with poise and precision in Week 4.
But for Beathard to lead, his teammates need to follow. So do the coaches. Either switch up the offensive line or use a tight end or running back to chip on the right defensive end. Send one receiver long and another one short on every pass route. Incorporate more quick slants that require cut blocks. Oh, and run the football when the opponent least expects it.
Beathard has a gun for an arm and a rare feel for the game. He tips the field unlike any Iowa quarterback in recent memory. He’s a swashbuckling Ken Stabler in black and gold. But in order for him to showcase his brilliance, his teammates must improve — and fast. Otherwise, Beathard will join Stanzi in the Iowa hall of disappointment.