(AP) – Judging C.J. Beathard solely by his stats doesn’t do him justice.
Fourth in the Big Ten in quarterback rating and just seventh in yards per game (203.4). Ten touchdown passes in nine games. He seems barely a candidate for an all-Big Ten team much less the leader of a program with national championship aspirations.
Yet there is a reason Iowa is 10-0 in games he has started dating to 2014. Beathard has a knack for coming through when it matters and he has inspired his team along the way.
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Beathard leaped over three defenders – despite an undisclosed hip or groin injury that has hampered him for weeks – for the go-ahead touchdown in last week’s 35-27 win over Indiana. It was also the kind of play Beathard has made all season for the eighth-ranked Hawkeyes (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten).
”That was epic,” Iowa running back Akrum Wadley said. ”That made me want to hurdle somebody.”
Iowa heads into Saturday night’s game against Minnesota in search of the first 10-0 start in school history partly because of the sensational play of its gutsy junior quarterback from Franklin, Tennessee.
”This is a special team. We’ve got a special thing going on right now,” Beathard said. ”That’s a nice part as well, making history, but we just want to keep playing for this team’s sake.”
Iowa can clinch a spot in the Big Ten title game as early as this week if it beats the Gophers (4-5, 1-4) and Wisconsin loses to Northwestern.
Coach Kirk Ferentz is focused more on that as opposed to where his team stands in the College Football Playoff rankings – though the Hawkeyes made quite a jump Tuesday, going from ninth in the initial CFP poll to fifth.
"For coaches and players I don’t really see the point of it right now," Ferentz said. "If you can run the table and win your conference championship game, then you’ve got a chance to be in the discussion."
Beathard is a big reason why they could be. He first opened eyes with game-winning touchdown drives in the final three minutes on the road at Iowa State and at home against Pittsburgh in September. Despite playing the worst game of his career at Wisconsin on Oct. 3, Beathard’s TD pass to George Kittle was the difference for Iowa in a 10-6 win that solidified it as a Big Ten title contender.
In a 29-20 win over Illinois, Beathard found freshman Jerminic Smith for 49 yards on a long third-down play in a drive that resulted in a touchdown. Beathard hurt his groin against the Illini, but he played through the injury in guiding the Hawkeyes past Northwestern 40-10.
Beathard then followed up his risky leap at Indiana with two touchdown drives in a row.
”A straight tough guy. When you do things like that, that just motivates us to do more,” Wadley said.
But for all of Beathard’s intangibles, there are two very tangible reasons why he’s been so good in 2015: He protects the football and he’s at his best in the fourth quarter.
Beathard has thrown just three interceptions and lost a lone fumble, an impressive stat given that he has run the ball 62 times. Beathard is also 26 of 38 passing for 352 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter this season.
”If you can take good care of the ball, you give yourself a chance to win,” Beathard said. ”You may not produce so much offensively – not that we haven’t all year – but if you’re not turning the ball over, you give yourself a chance to win every game.”
That’s exactly what the Hawkeyes have done so far behind Beathard, who has more than justified Ferentz’s decision to start him over Jake Rudock, now with Michigan, before the start of the season.
”C.J. has a ton of heart,” lineman Cole Croston said. ”He’s got the best interests of the team in mind. Seeing him go out there and playing to his ability and play through injuries…it really hits home.”
His job has been made a bit easier this week with Minnesota learning that cornerback Jalen Myrick, who has a team-high three interceptions, will miss the rest of the season with a rib injury.
Myrick got hurt early in last week’s 28-14 loss to the Buckeyes and was replaced by freshman KiAnte Hardin, who had five tackles in the game.
”I thought KiAnte Hardin the other night stepped in and did a great job,” interim coach Tracy Claeys said. ”We’ll just take the next healthy one, throw him in there and go. It’s been a weird season as far as that goes. But at the same time, our kids, they’ve answered the bell and haven’t used it as excuses and continue to compete.”
The Gophers have had 22 players on the two-deep depth chart miss a combined 81 games this season, including 12 starters who have missed at least one game.
Minnesota’s top two running backs, Rodney Smith (ankle) and Shannon Brooks (shoulder), are also dealing with injuries. Claeys said Smith, who has a team-leading 574 yards, and Brooks, who has added 384, would be evaluated as they practice this week.
Claeys also said senior Rodrick Williams, who has just 29 carries this season, could be involved against Iowa.
Minnesota won last year’s meeting 51-14 but has lost six straight in Iowa City since 1999.