Welcome to the first true quarterback controversy at Iowa since 2008.
If you haven't seen today's pseudo-reports, it looks like erstwhile backup C.J. Beathard is going to get his first career start Saturday at Purdue (11 a.m. CT kickoff, BTN). You can hear the high fives and giddy anticipation across the state of Iowa today, a level of excitement that wasn't there before last week. When Beathard went in for a series against Ball State, it was barely consequential. When he made his first appearance against Pitt last week, Twitter was sarcastically praising him for his inevitable benching the next series. But Beathard stayed, and he was fantastic, and anyone with half of a brain watching that game realized that everything worked better with him at the controls. He deserves this start, regardless of Rudock's current condition.
But while Beathard brings things to the table that Iowa desperately needs -- the arm strength and confidence to present a viable deep threat in the passing game, and the sort of 'fuck it, we're going long' swagger that has served Ferentz offenses well in the past under Drew Tate and Ricky Stanzi -- he is not a miracle balm that, when applied, makes this schematically challenged offense suddenly work.
As Ross noted earlier, Beathard got some playing time last year once Rudock's knee injury had slowed the starter down. The results were not impressive: 9/27 for 179 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. A 33 percent completion rate cannot stand, but the Ferentz-Davis hybrid was essentially built to kill off the very passes that Beathard was throwing. That 6.6 yards per attempt average despite a criminally low completion percentage tells the story: Beathard was throwing past the sticks, and it really didn't work (especially against Wisconsin, which had basically dared Iowa to throw a play action pass downfield knowing that Iowa didn't actually have one ready.
Beathard didn't work in last year's offense, and he likely wouldn't have worked in the offense that was on the field for Ball State and Iowa State, either. Those gameplans were precisely what we have seen since Davis arrived in 2012: A pro-style zone running attack with a spread-ish short passing game grafted on top. Those gameplans rely on low-risk, low-reward throws, run from formations that directly contradict the running game. The theory of a spread offense is that you force the defense to cover more area, both horizontal and vertical, so that the number of defenders left in the box can't stop the interior passing game. Davis' passing game, which forgets the 'vertical' part and goes strictly horizontal, ignores the effect that such an offense has on a defense. Safeties otherwise worried about the deep ball can act as additional linebackers without fear. Linebackers can still cover slot receivers and tight ends, mostly because those receivers are catching the ball in horrible position to do anything of consequence and aren't the same caliber of athlete that Davis had at Texas (though this offense didn't much work there, either). And then Iowa switches to an obvious running formation, telegraphs its intentions to the defense, and goes with a slow-developing stretch play, usually toward the boundary to contract the defense and make it easy to block. The expansion and contraction make no sense in greater context. Iowa's offense is an accordion, and nobody knows how to play it.
The Iowa offense at Pitt was not the same offense we had seen a week earlier. The spread elements and horizontal passes were somewhat reduced in favor of a simple, straightforward play action passing game focused downfield. It was Ken O'Keefe offense in its 2003 form, and it was extremely effective. The wall of tacklers lined up against the run suddenly had to watch their backs, and the nine-man fronts disappeared. Not surprisingly, the running game sprung to life -- Iowa ran for 82 yards in the second half, not exactly Bo Jackson Tecmo Bowl output but light years ahead of where the running game had been -- with Weisman and Canzeri finding holes where none had previously existed. And Iowa's cadre of outside speed merchants, especially Damond Powell, finally got their chance with a quarterback who has no problem throwing the deep ball. In fact, Beathard's only incompletion came when his receiver broke off a fly route and started backpedaling, presumably because he forgot who was at quarterback and thought another Rudock underthrow was on its way.
Jake Rudock is an effective quarterback in an ineffective offense, and much of the shade thrown his way in the past few weeks is not his fault. But Iowa's offense last weekend (and, we're hoping, this week and the weeks to come) is not made for someone who will color inside Greg Davis' horizontal lines. It's made for a quarterback who will take the chances that the head coach and offensive coordinator are so afraid of taking on their own, who isn't afraid of throwing an interception if it means a shot at a big play, and who clearly has a spark that the huddle desperately needs. Ferentz and Davis can sink Beathard on Saturday, just as they sunk Vandenberg two years ago and nearly sunk Rudock by ditching the one thing that worked last year -- the tight end sets against OSU -- after one game. They can kill off the Beathard boomlet by making him run their ill-conceived standard offense.
It's a strange time when we can say that we hope for the return of Kenball, but at this point, Kenball is what we need. Let's see if we get it.