IOWA CITY, Iowa – At this time last year, C.J. Beathard could do nothing wrong.
He was a star after just five games, the gun-slinging quarterback that Iowa fans had been clamoring for since the 2014 season unraveled with Jake Rudock behind center.
Beathard was using a rare combination of talent, moxie and grit to help Iowa win games.
His story only got better as Iowa would go on to finish the regular season 12-0, capturing the Big Ten West Division title along the way.
But nobody saw that coming after just five games last season.
Iowa was lucky to be 5-0 last season.
It took a 57-yard field goal from Marshall Koehn to defeat Pittsburgh 27-24 as time expired at Kinnick Stadium in the third game, and a play in which Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave fumbled at the Iowa 1-yard after stepping on somebody’s foot and stumbling to the ground.
Take away the second longest field goal in school history and a freakish fumble and Iowa is probably 3-2 and searching for answers after five games last season.
Winning shields everything and becomes the narrative regardless of the circumstances.
It didn’t matter that Beathard only completed 9-of-21 passes for 77 yards against Wisconsin last season or that Iowa averaged fewer than four yards per carry against the Badgers because Iowa prevailed 10-6 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis.
It didn’t matter that Iowa was tied with a horrible Iowa State team late in the fourth quarter because the Hawkeyes scored two late touchdowns and escaped from Ames with a 31-17 victory.
It didn’t matter that Iowa allowed at least 200 passing yards in three of the first five games last season and no fewer than 173 passing yards in all five games because the Hawkeyes were undefeated after five games.
All that mattered was Iowa’s 5-0 record. Everything else was secondary to being undefeated.
The current team, obviously, doesn’t have that luxury with a 3-2 record.
It has fans asking what in the heck is wrong, even though the line separating it from last season’s team is thinner than you might think.
“That’s kind of the history of the program,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. “I don’t think we’re unique that way. Usually it’s a pretty fine line. Occasionally, you get on a run where things just start to pop and all that. But usually it is a pretty fine line. I think back to a lot of our really successful seasons, that’s how it is.
“And the trick is to push it over the top. And last year we won on a last-second field goal. One of our defeats this year was by a last-second field goal. Last week it’s a touchdown. We still have opportunities. Boy, you talk about fine lines.”
At this point, Iowa hasn’t lost anything, but a spot in the four-team college playoff. And that was a long shot at best.
The Big Ten West Division title and the conference title both still are within reach, although, good luck getting past Ohio State.
Getting past Minnesota on Saturday also will be a monumental challenge because the Gophers are big, physical and experienced.
“We’re close,” said Beathard. “We’re a few plays from being possibly 5-0 and that’s how close football is. There is fine line between winning and losing and we know that.
“And like I said, we’re close. We just have to figure out what we are doing wrong and clean up just little things. And you can watch tape, you’re this close on one play and this close on another play and figuring out what you can do to make that play possibly break or keep drives going.”
Whether it is just a matter of cleaning things up is subject to debate. But what else would you expect a player to say?
Something, obviously, is wrong with Iowa’s rushing defense and pass protection. Iowa’s rushing attack also was missing in action during the two losses to North Dakota State and Northwestern.
So yes, there are differences between the current team and last season’s team.
But the Hawkeyes hardly were a finished product after five games last season. There were concerns about the pass defense and about Beathard’s health because at this stage last season, he was battered and bruised and not nearly as mobile as he was in the first two games.
Beathard has been criticized this season for hanging on to the football for too long in the pocket. Some of the criticism is justified, but it’s magnified by losing.
Last season, Beathard was praised for being brave in the pocket and for knowing when to scramble. But he also took some vicious hits in the pocket, especially against Pittsburgh and Wisconsin.
But since Iowa won both games by a combined seven points, fans were willing to overlook it.
Penalties have been a problem this season, but they were also a problem last season.
In fact, Iowa has 24 penalties after five games this season, which is two fewer penalties than it had at this stage last season.
You could argue that the penalties this season have been more costly, particularly the two that erased long runs by LeShun Daniels. But that has more to do with timing and circumstance than anything else.
When it comes to committing penalties, both teams are similar.
Beathard also has thrown nine touchdown passes and just two interceptions in five games this season, whereas last season he had seven touchdown passes and two interceptions after five games.
It turned out that Iowa wasn’t as good as we thought last season, as it was no match for Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
We don’t know enough about the current team to label it after five games. We know it has some issues heading into Saturday’s game at Minnesota, but it also has many of the same players from last season addressing those issues.
This season has been a huge disappointment so far, because unlike last season, expectations were unusually high. Fans were pleasantly surprised by Iowa’s 5-0 record last season, while the current team’s 3-2 record is a major letdown.
This is where fans need trust and patience. We’ve all made assumptions about Iowa teams during the course of a season and been wrong, either by over-estimating or under-estimating their potential.
This season could prove to be a disaster. But it hasn’t reached that stage yet.
It also hasn’t been a major change from last season, if you could just look past the records.