Mitch Leidner found himself admiring C.J. Beathard’s game while watching the Iowa quarterback pick apart the Gophers in the first half last year.
The animosity for the rival Hawkeyes was still there. But Leidner respected the way Beathard balanced his playmaking ability.
“I remember playing against them and watching him out there and being able to do it with his legs and throwing on the run,” the Gophers quarterback said. “It shows why they have had success there.”
But Beathard hasn’t been the same player that led his team to a school-record 12-0 start and earned All-Big Ten honors last season. Whether he can overcome his struggles could play a key role when the Gophers try to recapture the Floyd of Rosedale trophy in Saturday’s rivalry game at TCF Bank Stadium.
The 6-2, 215-pound senior from Franklin, Tenn., is throwing for fewer than 190 yards per game this season and has rushed for minus-25 yards on 30 carries. And Beathard’s struggles start with the guys in front of him. The Hawkeyes (3-2) have allowed 14 sacks in five games, second most in the Big Ten.
“That’s something we’re working on, just like everything else right now,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “And our passing game hasn’t looked really very clean, very rhythmic at all consistently. And that’s going to be one of the things we’re focused on.”
There’s a difference between scrambling to make plays and scrambling for your life.
In last week’s 38-31 loss to Northwestern, Beathard was sacked six times, which rattled him down the stretch. He was forced out of the pocket under pressure and threw an interception during a potential game-winning drive with a minute left.
North Dakota State kicked a 37-yard field goal to upset Iowa 23-21 on Sept. 17 after the Bison defense sacked Beathard to end Iowa’s last possession.
Beathard’s passing numbers aren’t bad this year. He’s completed 61.7 percent of his passes for 945 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions. His passer rating of 149.2 ranks fourth in the Big Ten.
But Ferentz talked this week about his offense needing to play more up-tempo, with Beathard getting rid of the ball to avoid sacks and mistakes.
“The more of that we can get, the better off we’re going to be,” Ferentz said. “And that’s a team thing, whether it’s protection, guys not getting open fast enough, or maybe it’s us not reading the right plays, right places.”
The Gophers made it interesting last year, coming back from down 24-14 at halftime before falling 40-35 in Iowa City. Beathard was only sacked once and finished the game with 260 total yards — 200 in the first half — and two rushing touchdowns.
The Hawkeyes hope Saturday will be their chance to get Beathard playing more like he did a year ago, but that means giving him the support he needs.
“I’m not really worried how we do it,” Beathard said. “As long as it does get picked up and I can step up into the pocket. I know they’re going to get up the field and rush like a lot of teams we played. [We’ll be fine], as long as we can protect and get the ball out quickly.”