IOWA CITY, Iowa – At 2-0, which includes a 31-17 victory at Iowa State last Saturday, the Iowa football team has inspired hope and optimism with its early performance.
There is so much to like about the Hawkeyes, most notably C.J. Beathard’s impact at quarterback, a rushing attack that is showing signs of life and an aggressive defense that’s allowing just 49 rushing yards per game.
But we only have two games by which to judge the Hawkeyes. We’ll learn more about Beathard and his cohorts when they play Pittsburgh on Saturday in a rare night game at Kinnick Stadium.
“We are off to a positive start,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “The real key for our football team now is to try to improve and make sure that we are looking forward, not backwards and see what we can do about taking another step forward.”
That’s what you would expect Ferentz to say in this situation. He acknowledged the early success, but not without addressing the need to improve because there still is plenty of room for that.
So, here’s what I like and what don’t like after two games. I will admit that finding five things that I don’t like was difficult.
1. THE IT FACTOR: Beathard is now 3-0 as Iowa’s starting quarterback, or 3 ½-0 if you include his second-half performance at Pittsburgh last season. He has thrown four touchdown passes in two games this season with zero interceptions.
Statistics only tell part of Beathard’s impact, though.
More than anything, he’s a playmaker. And sometimes he does things that can’t be coached, like his 44-yard run against Iowa State that started from his own end zone. Beathard took a huge chance on that play because there were several defenders in position to make a tackle, but he eluded them. A lot of other quarterbacks probably would’ve played it safe and thrown the ball away. But Beathard saw an opportunity to make something happen and he did while starting from his own end zone.
Beathard also was standing in his own end zone when he threw a perfectly-placed deep ball to Matt VandeBerg for a 48-yard gain in the fourth quarter against Iowa State.
Plays like that might be a sign that Beathard has the “it factor.” We just need to see more of them.
2. FOUR-STARS PLAYING LIKE FOUR-STARS: This is mostly about three players: senior center Austin Blythe, senior guard Jordan Walsh and junior defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson. All three of them are living up to their hype as 4-star recruits in high school.
Blythe has been living up to it for quite some time with 37 career starts on his list of accomplishments, along with making second-team all-Big Ten last season. The Williamsburg native is one of the most respected players on the team, evidenced by him being a member of Iowa’s Leadership Group in each of his four seasons.
Walsh has started 27 games as a Hawkeye, including all 13 at right guard as a sophomore in 2013. The Glendale Heights, Ill., native hasn’t been spectacular as a Hawkeye, but he has been steady and still has most of his senior season to make an impact. Iowa has rushed for over 200 yards in each of its first two games this season, thanks largely to Walsh and Blythe leading the way up front.
Johnson has the least amount of experience among the three as a first-year starter. But in two games this season, the 6-4, 310-pounder has shown signs of being a disruptive force in the trenches.
3. ONE-TWO PUNCH AT RECEIVER: Even though it might have cost him some receptions, nobody seems more pleased than Tevaun Smith about Matt VandeBerg’s emergence as a go-to receiver.
VandeBerg leads Iowa with 15 catches for 173 yards and two touchdowns, while Smith has five receptions for 47 yards and one touchdown in two games.
“VandeBerg is number one, I’d say he’s number one,” Smith said Tuesday when asked if VandeBerg’s was now Iowa’s top receiver. “Now it’s kind of a one-two punch. It’s kind of exciting for us. There are two receivers that can make plays. If one doesn’t, the other one is going to step up.
“And we’ve got C.J., who can run the ball.”
Smith led Iowa with 596 receiving yards last season, so defenses are geared to stop him this season, sometimes with double coverage.
However, the problem with double-teaming Smith is that often leaves VandeBerg open.
“Then you’ve got Matt VandeBerg on the other side who can do just as much as I can,” Smith said. “That’s what is exciting about our offense.”
4. OFFENSIVE TACKLES AREN’T SO TERRIBLE: In no way am I suggesting that sophomores Boone Myers and Ike Boettger are performing at a level that would make them a strength. Not by a long shot am I suggesting that.
What I am saying is that neither starting offensive tackle has been a weakness nor a liability in the first two games. They’ve struggled with pass blocking at times, but for the most part, their performances have been adequate.
5. DILLON THE KIDD: The fact that he performed well against Iowa State hardly is proof that Dillon Kidd’s problems are behind him, but it’s a start. He played a major role in shifting the field position against Iowa State, averaging 47.4 yards on five attempts, including two that were downed inside the Cyclone 20-yard line. That’s getting it done as a punter.
Combine Kidd with the continued excellence of senior kicker Marshall Koehn and the Hawkeyes might have what it takes to be a force on special teams for a change.
1. INJURIES: Any player getting injured is sobering news, but to lose arguably your best defensive player and your starting running back in the same half is troubling. That’s what happened against Iowa State last Saturday when all-Big Ten defensive end Drew Ott injured his arm in the first quarter and didn’t return and starting running back LeShun Daniels injured his ankle in the second quarter and also didn’t return.
Daniels also missed five games last season with a leg injury, so you start to wonder about his durability.
Both players were listed on the new depth chart that was released on Monday, but that doesn’t mean they’ll play on Saturday against Pittsburgh. It’s most likely a fluid situation in both cases that won’t be decided until perhaps as late as Saturday afternoon.
2. BEATHARD’S PLAYING STYLE: Iowa probably wouldn’t have defeated Iowa State without Beathard having the game’s two longest runs of 44 and 57 yards. Both plays shifted the field position and the momentum to Iowa’s side when it had hung in the balance. Not since Brad Banks burned Purdue with a quarterback draw in 2002 has an Iowa quarterback had a more important run than the two Beathard had on Saturday.
The problem with Beathard running for long gains, or running at all, is the risk of injury. All it would take is one hit or one cut to change the course of Iowa’s season. Enjoy the ride, but I’d keep my fingers crossed in hopes that Beathard stays healthy because you know he’ll stay aggressive. That’s just him.
3. LACK OF PROVEN DEPTH AT RUNNING BACK: Iowa has six running backs on scholarship who have combined for just four starts, two each by senior Jordan Canzeri and junior LeShun Daniels. So even Iowa’s most experienced running backs aren’t that experienced.
Take Daniels out of the rotation, which might happen on Saturday because of an injury, and the top two backups would be sophomore Derrick Mitchell, who has no game experience, and sophomore Akrum Wadley, who has a propensity to fumble, including losing one fumble the season opener against Illinois State.
“It’s just that ball security, to me it’s all concentration,” Ferentz said of Wadley’s problem with fumbling. “But he’s working hard at it and he’s committed to getting better.”
4. WIDE RECEIVER SEPARATION: This has been an ongoing problem for the Iowa receivers and it surfaced again at Iowa State. There were times when Beathard couldn’t find an open receiver because they were being blanketed by a defender.
Tevaun Smith is probably the best among the Iowa receivers at getting separation, but stopping him is also a priority for defenses. Smith might find more space with Matt VandeBerg now emerging as a playmaker at receiver.
VandeBerg isn’t great at getting separation, but he catches almost everything thrown his way and runs precise routes.
The Iowa receivers did get better separation in the second half against Iowa State. So maybe this concern is being addressed.
5. 2nd-DOWN PREDICTABLITY: This might seem like I’m nitpicking or searching for things to complain about, but Iowa only attempted to pass six times out of 24 opportunities on second down against Iowa State. One attempt ended with Beathard being sacked for a minus-6 yards, while 12 attempts were running plays that gained four or fewer yards.
Why not take a few more chances on 2-and-short?