By RICK BROWN
Leading up to the 2016 season opener against Miami of Ohio on Sept. 3 at Kinnick Stadium, hawkeyesports.com’s Rick Brown is taking a game-by-game look back at the University of Iowa’s historic 2015 season. With perspective from Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, his staff and players, we hope to give you some insight into a season that will never be forgotten.
Iowa 31, Iowa State 14
Sept. 12, 2015, Jack Trice Stadium
Quarterback C.J. Beathard’s arm is one reason the Hawkeyes won for a second straight time in Ames. But not the only one.
“His legs were huge,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Greg Davis said.
It was a healthy Beathard who passed for 215 yards and three touchdowns, and rushed for 77 yards in 10 carries, against the Cyclones.
“By the time we got to Northwestern (Oct. 17) he was limited,” Davis said. “Even though he made plays as the year went on, he was never really healthy again.”
But he was that day in Ames, a game that head coach Kirk Ferentz remembers fondly. That’s where Beathard displayed more than his arm and escapability with his feet.
“That game showed things you can’t measure in practice,” Ferentz said. “The poise, the toughness. It’s a hard place to play. It’s a great crowd. He handled that so well. And he made some big plays. When you have a quarterback who can give you that little spark when you need it, it’s a big benefit to an entire football team.”
This was the epitomy of a team victory. The Hawkeyes trailed at halftime, 17-10, but defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s charges put the hammer down the second half. Iowa State ran 31 plays for 244 yards the first half. And 31 plays for 66 yards — and no points — the second half.
That set the stage for a Beathard-led comeback over the final two quarters. And that one-touchdown deficit could have been much larger if not for Beathard’s wheels.
Down, 10-3, with just over 8 minutes remaining in the first half, Iowa started a drive at its own 7.
On first down, Beathard escaped the Cyclones’ Dale Pierson in the end zone and made an off-balance one-handed backwards stretch with the ball to avoid a safety. Eight plays and 99 yards later, including a 44-yard keeper by Beathard when five defenders got a hand on him, he threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Tevaun Smith.
Iowa never trailed again after scoring on its first possession of the third quarter, and got a break to make that happen. On a first-down play from the Cyclone 32, Beathard found tight end Henry Krieger Coble in the right flat. As Krieger Coble got inside the 5 he took a hit on the ball, which popped out. But wide receiver Matt VandeBerg scooped it up on the first bounce and dove into the end zone.
With Iowa’s defense playing stubborn football, Beathard and the offense got it done down the stretch.
The Hawkeyes faced a third-and-21 from their own 6 on their first possession of the fourth quarter. Field position and momentum were in Iowa State’s corner. That changed with one flick of the wrist.
“When you get the ball backed up, one of the first things you tell your quarterback, and in essence your offense, is that our first goal is to get a first down so we can punt however we want to punt,” Davis said. “You don’t want your punter standing 9 yards deep in the end zone. But in that situation, you don’t count on converting a third and 21. I told C.J.,’We’re going to call this and if we catch them with their pants down, let’s take advantage of it. If not, drop the ball down to the back and hopefully we can make enough yards that we can have a normal punt.’ “
Beathard was in the shotgun when he took center Austin Blythe’s snap and dropped several steps into the end zone. Running back Jordan Canzeri, the safe play, was open on a crossing route. But Beathard saw VandeBerg streaking down the field with a step on defender Darian Cotton. And he threw a strike for a 48-yard gain to the Iowa State 46.
“He got the look he wanted,” Davis said. “Matt ran great route and made a great catch. It was a huge play.”
As Beathard thinks back, he calls this the biggest play of the game.
“The line gave great protection, and I had all day to throw,” Beathard said. “Being backed up like that is tough. It was a good play call by coach Davis. A big play, even though we didn’t score on that drive.”
Seven plays later, Canzeri fumbled at the Iowa State 7 and the Cyclones recovered. But field position had flipped. All because of the Beathard-to-VandeBerg connection.
“That’s one thing about C.J., he has confidence,” Ferentz said. “And it takes confidence to make those kinds of throws. If you have a guy who can do that, the receivers better be alert because it may be coming their way. Even in a tight window.”
Iowa’s defense forced Iowa State to punt. And Desmond King returned it 34 yards to midfield.
That’s where Beathard and crew took over with 6:08 to play.
Six plays later, Iowa had it first-and-10 at the Iowa State 25. The clock had just moved inside 2:30 when Beathard got ready for the snap. Many in the stadium figured the Hawkeyes would milk the clock and kick a field goal. Davis had other ideas.
“It was a fairly safe play,” Davis said.
Beathard rolled left, and threw a perfect strike across his body to Riley McCarron in the left corner of the end zone. McCarron had gotten past cornerback Jomal Wiltz with a double move.
“In that situation we were thinking, ‘Obviously you would like a touchdown, but be smart with the ball because a field goal is going to win it,’ ” Davis said. “We had a movement throw, so for the quarterback you’ve cut the field in half. The worst thing that I felt would happen would be an incomplete pass, and it would be second and 10. Riley ran a great route. And C.J. threw a strike.”
Ferentz was all in when he heard the call.
“We wanted to play aggressively, so that part fit,’ Ferentz said. “It was a huge play. Personally, I was happy Riley was on the receiving end because of the great season he had. He did a lot of good things for us last year.”
And Beathard had the confidence to make the throw.
“It was another situation where if we catch them with their pants down, let’s take advantage,” Beathard said.
Three plays later, King intercepted Sam Richardson’s pass. Canzeri got to the end zone with runs of 17 and 8 yards and the Cy-Hawk Trophy was headed back to Iowa City.