Trust. We've long lamented the whims and vagaries of Kirk Ferentz's playcalling, especially when perceived to come at the detriment of the football team, but perhaps that's not the most instructive approach. Perhaps it's not about what causes Ferentz's aversion to the fifty-fifty plays, but what encourages them.
The answer is now clear. Kirk Ferentz needs a quarterback he can trust. And he obviously trusts C.J. Beathard.
This post isn't another Rudock-basher, even as much as I suspect Iowa would be 1-2 right now without that change; Rudock was simply the latest in a long line of quarterbacks that Kirk Ferentz has been content to run a four-cylinder offense. This isn't for nothing, of course; one can imagine Ferentz's trepidation when on Rudock's very first start in 2013, he took over a late drive on Iowa's 45 in a tie game against NIU... and immediately threw a horrific interception that led to NIU running down the clock and kicking the game-winning field goal, 30-27. For a famously turnover-averse coach like Ferentz, that was likely enough by itself to set Rudock on a path not dissimilar to that of Jake Christensen: short, safe passes and an aesthetically pleasing TD-INT ratio (Christensen was 17-6 there in 2007, remember) and if the offense had a low ceiling of points, well, at least it wasn't turning the ball over everywhere.
Ferentz and Greg Davis also tried to make James Vandenberg an east-west passer, though that plan was doomed from the get-go with bad personnel fits both on the playing roster and in the coaching staff, so that's almost irrelevant, but only almost—Ferentz didn't divert from the plan, even as his offense crashed and burned.
Heading back to 2003, Nathan Chandler wasn't asked to do much in a Hawkeye uniform, though with that running game that's hardly a bad thing (and Ferentz was rewarded with another 10-win, #8 finish for his wisdom). In 2001, Kyle McCann ran an offense that bore scant resemblance to what was to come the next year, and even Jon "The Future" Beutjer ran a mostly conservative offense.
Indeed, Beathard is probably only the fourth quarterback that Ferentz has shown a great deal of trust in: before him, it was Brad Banks, Drew Tate and Ricky Stanzi, and that's basically it. Banks was throwing 10-20 yards downfield on basically every throw, Tate was thrust into his role and thrived as the first, second and third option, and Stanzi was given free reign to spray the field, even through the Rick-Sixes. If you were surprised at the multiple opportunities Beathard was given to make plays while standing in his own end zone against Iowa State, recall that Stanzi's season-ruining ankle injury was on a play fake in the end zone against Northwestern, and fans' disgust at the play was mostly along the lines of "okay, call a pass there, but not like that"—especially considering the same call in the same position just so happened to spark Iowa's fourth-quarter rally against Indiana just one week prior.
As of right now, Beathard joins those three as the only quarterbacks who average over 7.0 AY/A* under Ferentz, and while quality of performance obviously factors into that, so does play-calling. Iowa is counting on Beathard to move the sticks, and he is obliging.
Speaking of counting on Beathard, the Pitt game was just the 11th time a Ferentz team threw at least 40 passes in a game, according to Marc Morehouse; Iowa is now 4-7 in those games, so these situations usually indicate dire straits for the team.
And yet, Iowa never trailed against Pitt. It certainly seemed dicey at times—and let's thank Pat Narduzzi for calling a punt on 4th and inches in plus territory the only time the Panthers had the ball with a chance to take the lead in the second half—but Iowa never had to go into the panic mode that usually begets a throw-heavy day for Ferentz. All the same, Beathard's name was called on 48 of Iowa's 69 plays from scrimmage, with 40 throws and eight rushes on the day.
The only urgent drive Iowa faced was its last, with the ball sitting on the Iowa 30 and 52 seconds to play. Ferentz had kneeled games like this out before. He had seen better situations turn into disasters. The coin flip of overtime was beckoning to him.
But this time he had a quarterback he could trust, and Beathard obliged with 31 yards on six plays, 27 of which he ran for. Beathard's last play might have been his headiest of the day, scooting to Pitt's 39-yard line with an eye on the clock until he dove down with three seconds left, setting up the field goal that now rests in Hawkeye lore.
Having one's trust rewarded is a hell of a feeling, and like most rewarding experiences it makes you want to do it again. If we've really got a Kirk Ferentz who's this confident in his quarterback for the first time in five years, it might be time to amend expectations closer toward the results of his other three star signal-callers.
*adjusted yards per attempt, which adds 20 yards per touchdown and takes 45 for each interception; it's CFB Reference's stat, not mine.