Harty column: Outback Bowl drubbing shows again that Iowa has serious issues with its passing attack
By Pat Harty
So much for changing the bowl-preparation routine because that obviously didn’t work for the Iowa football team against Florida on Monday.
The 2017 Outback Bowl ended just like Iowa’s previous four bowl games with the Hawkeyes losing as injury-riddled Florida broke open a close game in the second half and then cruised to a 30-3 victory at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
In addition to losing five consecutive bowl games, four of Iowa’s five losses have come by at least 17 points.
So what’s up?
Who or what do you blame for Iowa’s bowl futility?
You apparently can’t blame Iowa’s previous bowl travel plan in which the players and coaches spent more time practicing at or near the site of bowl because this year Iowa spent more time preparing in Iowa City, and yet still got whipped.
There isn’t just one thing, but a familiar culprit caused problems again on Monday; that being a lack of speed on the perimeter, or more precisely at the receiver positions.
Fifth-year senior and former walk-on Riley McCarron was the only Iowa receiver to catch a pass on Monday. And that was against a Florida defense that was missing five of its top six tacklers because of injuries.
Iowa rushed for a respectable 171 yards in Monday’s game, but the passing attack failed to do its part again, which has been an ongoing theme this season.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz acknowledged his team’s passing woes on his post-game radio interview, but he also pointed to Iowa’s inability to capitalize on two Florida interceptions in the first quarter that led to only three points.
“It’s been a challenge for us all season long to do a good job throwing the football,” Ferentz said. “It showed up again today. So it’s just something we’re going to have to try and work around.”
“But I think at the end of the day, if we can be a little bit more opportunistic and come away with more than three points on that first conversion and the pick and then certainly score down in the end zone, keep the thing tight. That was certainly our plan certainly get into the fourth quarter in a tight ball game.”
Part of the reason Iowa failed to capitalize on the two early interceptions was the lack of balance on offense.
Iowa has some quality offensive linemen and two talented running backs in junior Akrum Wadley and senior LeShun Daniels. But even the best rushing attack needs help every now and then from teammates through the air.
Iowa play-by-play announcer Gary Dolphin deserves credit for pressing Ferentz on the lack of productivity at receiver during the post-game radio show, saying he knows it is one area that Ferentz will address during the offseason.
“It is,” Ferentz said. “But I think we played against two guys that we think are probably high-round NFL cornerbacks. So coming into the game we didn’t think we would have an opportunity to get a lot of production on the outside. I thought we would have to try and get some stuff going on the inside certainly in the passing game.
“We had a couple opportunities that we just didn’t convert. They were there. We had some well-conceived attempts and plans and just didn’t convert them quite the way you have to.”
That almost seemed as if Ferentz was defending offensive coordinator Greg Davis by saying the attempts were well-conceived and that Florida’s two cornerbacks were too good for Iowa’s receivers to pose much of a threat.
The thing with Ferentz is that he won’t throw any of his players or coaches under the bus. He obviously can’t be pleased with the production at receiver, but Ferentz believes that some things are off limits to the press.
It certainly didn’t help that Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard suffered a leg strain in the second quarter, making him practically immobile in the second half and a sitting duck against Florida’s pressure.
Florida was missing a lot of key defenders, but those who filled in also could run and pursue like the starters.
Beathard didn’t stand a chance in the second half with no help at receiver and with limited mobility. It made sense that Ferentz stuck with Beathard for a while in the third quarter, hoping his senior quarterback with a 21-6 record as a starter would provide a spark.
By the fourth quarter, though, it almost seemed strange that Beathard still was in the game, considering the score and his physical condition.
Most of the key plays in Sunday’s game featured a Florida skill player making an Iowa defender miss a tackle in space.
Wadley did the same thing to the Florida defenders, but he was practically a one-man show.
Of course, the offensive line helped by carving holes, but many of Wadley’s 115 rushing yards came on plays in which he juked a defender or multiple defenders in space. They also came on plays in which Florida had seven and eight defenders in the box just daring Iowa to pass.
The problem is that Iowa’s passing attack has been woeful for much of the season, including Monday. It was hard for Beathard to complete a pass before he was injured, but then it was almost impossible after the injury occurred.
The same criticism that always surfaces after an Iowa loss did so again on Monday as Greg Davis became the focus of fan frustration and discontent, many thinking the problems on offense won’t get fixed until Davis is gone.
I’m not ready to call for Davis’ job, but something has to change with the passing attack because we’ve now seen three pretty good quarterbacks – James Vandenberg, Jake Rudock and Beathard – get worse under his watch.
Davis pointed to Iowa’s lack of speed at receiver when he was hired in 2012, but nothing seems to have changed.
As good as Matt VandeBerg is as a receiver, his absence shouldn’t have caused that position to almost become a non-factor this season.
You can blame the schemes all you want, but it also comes down to making plays. But that rarely seems to happen with the Iowa receivers, except for when VandeBerg is healthy.
Part of the problem can be traced to recruiting. It’s no secret that Iowa hasn’t recruited well at receiver under Ferentz.
Monday’s loss comes on the heels of a recruiting process in which two receivers from Texas recently de-committed from Iowa’s 2017 class.
Fans now are anxiously waiting for Iowa City West receiver Oliver Martin to pick his college. Iowa, Michigan and Notre Dame are considered three of his favorites.
Receiver has been a sore spot for Iowa in recruiting, especially in state with former star recruits Adrian Arrington and Amara Darboh both picking Michigan. Darboh graduated from West Des Moines Dowling and was a senior for Michigan this season.
Iowa State star receiver Allen Lazard also had family ties to the Cyclones and never seriously considered Iowa despite living in Urbandale.
Iowa's receivers weren't soley to blame for Monday's beat down, but they also did little to help.
That has to change or you can expect more of the same in bowl games of this caliber.
Or maybe we should just blame the devoted Iowa fans because their loyalty and willingness to travel often seems to put Iowa in a bowl game that maybe it didn't deserve and against an opponent that simply is better.
Especially at receiver.