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The Iowa Caucus: Passing game

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This is the second installment of The Stanford Daily’s seven-part preview series on the Iowa Hawkeyes, who will face Stanford in the 102nd Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California on Jan. 1, 2016. This piece will look at Iowa’s passing attack. Previous parts can be read at the following links:

Part 1: Overview

The low-down: Believe the stereotypes at your own risk. Throughout head coach Kirk Ferentz’s tenure, the Hawkeyes have maintained a reputation for operating in an ultra-conservative, highly risk-averse fashion, and, indeed, it’s no secret that the Black and Gold heavily favor the run, attacking on the ground over 60 percent of the time. However, the Hawkeyes have also shown a penchant for pushing the ball downfield and delivering death blows to unsuspecting defenses across the Heartland.

Much like Stanford, Iowa operates out of a pro-style offense that rarely produces overwhelming numbers in the air: Ferentz’s squad ranks 89th in the FBS with 201.8 passing yards per game and finished 11th in the Big Ten in scoring offense. But make no mistake: Iowa does capitalize on its opportunities and finished third in its conference in passing efficiency. Fittingly, in a season that saw them unexpectedly explode into the top tier of national rankings, the Hawkeyes led the Big Ten with 17 plays of over 40 yards — a resurgence fueled in large part by an adept and opportunistic passing game.

Best player: Every passing game is only as good as its quarterback, and there’s no question that C.J. Beathard is the beating heart of the Hawkeyes’ aerial attack. Beathard has seized the reins of the starting job after taking over for the since-departed Jake Rudock in last season’s TaxSlayer Bowl.

Throughout the season, Beathard has displayed a strong arm capable of making any throw on the field, an ability to extend plays with his legs as well as steady veteran leadership. Beathard’s best trait, however, just might be his ability to make sound decisions and take care of the football, complementing his 15 passing and 6 rushing touchdowns and 2,570 passing yards with just 4 interceptions.

Best performance: In Week 3 of the season, no one could have known that something special was brewing in Iowa City, but under the lights of Kinnick Stadium against a quality opponent in Pittsburgh, the Hawkeyes’ passing game came through and sent a message to the nation of the season for the ages that lay ahead.

As Pat Narduzzi’s defense stifled the Iowa running game to the tune of 105 yards — its second-lowest output of the season — it was up to Beathard and company to step up and save the day. The junior quarterback finished with a season-high 27 completions on 40 attempts for 258 yards and an interception while engineering a last-minute drive to set up the game-winning kick.

Star receivers Matt VandeBerg and Tevaun Smith also delivered huge performances, racking up 7 receptions for 45 yards and 3 receptions for 73 yards, respectively. The night was also a memorable one for tight end Henry Krieger Coble, who recorded a career-high 5 receptions for 48 yards.

Worst performance: Iowa’s unblemished regular-season march through the Big Ten almost ended before it even started when the Hawkeyes struggled to get anything going offensively in their Big Ten opener at Wisconsin.

Missing explosive receiver Smith and left tackle Boone Myers due to injury, the Hawkeyes failed to score a touchdown in the second half and Beathard ended a tough day at Camp Randall with just 9 completions on 21 attempts for 77 yards in addition to an interception and a fumble lost. With the absence of Smith, VandeBerg finished the day as the only Iowa receiver to catch a pass, hauling in six for 61 yards. If not for a heroic performance from the Hawkeyes’ defense in forcing four turnovers, who knows if Iowa would have continued on its road to the Roses.

Highlights of the season:

Who said Iowa was conservative? Down 9-6 at the start of the fourth quarter in the Big Ten Championship Game, offensive coordinator Greg Davis elected to get aggressive, and Beathard delivered a perfect deep ball to Smith for an 85-yard touchdown, the Black and Gold’s longest play from scrimmage this season and one that nearly punched its ticket to the College Football Playoff.

Sit back, relax and enjoy the sounds of Gus Johnson:

The Hawkeyes’ passing attack also came through in the clutch on this critical third-and-21 against in-state rival Iowa State. Pinned against its own goal line in a 17-17 tie during the fourth quarter, Ferentz’s offensive line delivered a clinic in pass protection while Beathard stepped up and delivered another perfect throw to a streaking VandeBerg, who finished the year as Iowa’s leading receiver.

And when Iowa dials up a big pass play, Gus Johnson is never far behind… (skip ahead to 13:06)

Biggest questions: In its two worst offensive performances of the season, against Wisconsin and Michigan State, the Hawkeyes’ offensive line gave up a combined 7 sacks in additional to several more hits on Beathard.

Will the unit be able to keep its quarterback upright against a Stanford front seven that has turned a corner in the second half of the season and recorded 8 tackles for loss against USC in the Pac-12 Championship game? In addition, can the Hawkeyes’ tight ends, Krieger Coble and George Kittle, continue to establish themselves as reliable options for Beathard in passing situations?

Matchup with Stanford: The Cardinal have been stout in defending the pass all season long (when healthy), but they have encountered some trouble when facing very physical offensive lines and mobile quarterbacks who can extend plays. Iowa fits the bill on both accounts. Cornerbacks Ronnie Harris and Alijah Holder return to the top of the depth chart and their presence will provide Stanford with a huge boost in covering the likes of Smith and VandeBerg.

Much of this matchup will come down to a chess match between Beathard and safeties Dallas Lloyd and Kodi Whitfield. Iowa loves to run the ball between the tackles to set up the play action, and if Beathard catches the safeties in a compromising position — as he did in the above highlights — he’s more than capable of delivering the punishment.

Explosive plays have taken Iowa’s offense to another level this year, and it only takes one to turn the tide in a game as big as the Rose Bowl. Stanford, however, has proven to be one of the best teams in the country in limiting big gains and will look to do so again behind a healthy secondary.

 

Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Vihan Lakshman's journey at The Stanford Daily came full-circle as he began his career as a football beat writer and now closes his time on The Farm in the same role. In between, he has served as an Opinions columnist and desk editor, a beat writer for Stanford baseball, and as a member of The Daily's Editorial Board. Vihan completed his undergraduate degree in Mathematical and Computational Science in 2016, and is currently pursuing a master's in Computational Mathematics. He also worked as a color commentator on KZSU football broadcasts during the 2015 season. To contact him, please send an email to vihan 'at' stanford.edu