TAMPA, Fla. — Iowa’s passing game has made strides this season, but it’s time for a sprint to the finish.
If Iowa has realistic expectations of beating No. 14 LSU in Wednesday’s Outback Bowl, quarterback Jake Rudock and his cast of receivers need to be more than complementary hors d’oeuvres before the main course — Iowa’s tried-and-true running game.
No one is going to become Jarvis Landry or Odell Beckham, Jr., overnight. The Tigers’ junior wide receivers will be more than a handful for an Iowa defense that was 11th nationally and second in the Big Ten in pass defense.
Beckham has 57 catches for 1,117 yards and eight touchdowns.
Landry has 75 catches for 1,172 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Iowa’s top three pass catchers — Kevonte Martin-Manley, C.J. Fiedorowicz and Tevaun Smith — have combined for 89 catches, 947 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“To beat a team like LSU, you’ve got to be two-dimensional,” Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis said Saturday. “We have to be productive in throwing and catching, and running after the catch. We’ve taken steps in that direction. Hopefully, this will be another one.”
Iowa has to attack the Tigers down the field to open the door for its power game. Mark Weisman needs just 62 yards to reach 1,000 for the season, and Jordan Canzeri’s burst and wiggle has become the perfect change-of-pace option.
Down the field meant one passing play of more than 50 yards last season. There have been five this season, none more important that Smith’s one-handed catch and 55-yard touchdown scamper that sparked a 24-21 victory against Michigan. That comeback win helped Iowa to its fourth Outback Bowl under coach Kirk Ferentz.
It was also a play that was big for Smith, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound budding black-and-gold star.
“That play against Michigan did a lot for not only his confidence, but ours,” Davis said. “And he’s practiced differently since then. He’s practiced with more confidence. This will be another challenge. Because he’ll be one-on-one a lot of times during the game.”
Smith has watched Beckham and Landry on film and wants to emulate them. Doing his best impression on Wednesday would be a good time to start.
“I’ve been watching them for awhile now,” Smith said. “They’re both supposed to go in what, the first or second round (of the NFL Draft)? Definitely great receivers.”
Smith had three catches for 31 yards last season. He’s got 24 catches for 310 yards this year. It’s the kind of path followed by many lightly recruited players who go on to bigger and better things under coach Kirk Ferentz.
“I’ve grown since the beginning of the season,” Smith said. “I’m definitely getting more confidence, and settled in with the offense. But by this time, I should be settled in.”
Rudock threw for 2,281 yards, 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions this season. Martin-Manley has 39 catches and four touchdowns. Fiedorowicz, a tight end expected to join Landry and Beckham in the NFL next season, has 26 catches and six touchdowns.
Iowa receivers Jacob Hillyer and Damond Powell both have a pair of touchdown catches, as does tight end Jake Duzey.
“If the passing game can help us win the game, that’s what we want,” Rudock said. “But I’ll be the first to tell you that if we have to pass for five yards and rush for 200, I’ll be happy with that. Just whatever it takes to win. We want to have the running game and passing game complement each other. That’s the kind of offense we are.”
Iowa will never be a throw-every-down, spread-offense team under Ferentz. A steady diet of power football will always be on the menu. But a more potent passing game will only help Weisman get to a grand and get Iowa a ninth victory.
Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year and covers Hawkeye football and basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football