Here come the Hawkeyes: Desmond King, C.J. Beathard and the surprising Iowa team that just won't lose
IOWA CITY, Iowa—"It's a circus," Desmond King says about his campus these days. To explain how much of a circus it is, one of the stars of undefeated Iowa refers a visitor to his Media Uses and Effects discussion group. The junior cornerback says he makes it a habit to get to this class early: It is the best way to avoid people asking for his autograph. The player tied for the FBS lead with eight interceptions can settle in and raise his hand and maybe ask the teacher a question, to dissuade anyone from approaching him. If King gets caught up with everyone else arriving, that's when the attention hits.
And forget about coming in last.
"All eyes are on you," King says. "That's worse."
C.J. Beathard thinks this is all a bit of a circus, too, though his signature experience is secondhand. To clarify: The Hawkeyes junior quarterback refers to the Country Music Association Awards that took place in Nashville, Tenn., on Nov. 4. His father, Casey, is an award-winning songwriter who has worked with artists like Kenny Chesney, Eric Church and Thomas Rhett, among many others. At the festivities a couple of weeks back, Casey Beathard spent at least part of his evening talking about his son and Iowa football. He heard some of the biggest names in country music speak with great delight about the kid they used to see hanging around the studio, noting how C.J. was just killing it this fall.
"Obviously I'm not going to text Eric Church," C.J. says, "but my dad says they ask about me and they're happy for me and proud of me."
It's more than midway through November and Iowa is 10–0 for the first time in program history. It's fresh off a 40–35 victory over Minnesota in Kinnick Stadium, and entering late-season matchups with Purdue and Nebraska it has legitimate designs on crashing the College Football Playoff. It has a longtime coach who acts differently than he has in a long time—going for it on fourth downs, trying to dictate the action—and a game-changing cornerback who fends off adoring fans. It has a fearless quarterback who, sometimes, is the subject of conversation between country music stars. And if outsiders have no idea how this is happening, it keeps happening nevertheless, and the Hawkeyes continue to demand everyone's attention. The path to the Big Ten championship game is manageable. The path to a playoff berth is straightforward.
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages: If we're being honest, the circus might just be beginning.
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Kirk Ferentz sits on a couch in an anteroom just outside his office, a small parcel of space in the 76,000-square-foot Hansen Football Performance Center, the $55 million structure opened in 2014 that seems to be all brightness and clean lines. Thus it seems fitting that the topic is infrastructure, 16 and a half years into his tenure here: shifting the responsibilities of two assistants last off-season, as well as establishing his son, offensive line coach Brian Ferentz, as run game coordinator, following five straight seasons in which the Hawkeyes won eight games or fewer. This is a new-ish staff, with new-ish ideas in a new building, a bunch of structural fixes to support an upgraded lifestyle.
"We've kind of gone through a rebirth, if you will," Kirk says. "It's kind of all coming together here at once, hopefully. Time will tell."
Iowa's coach should be well clear of the job status chatter that followed him into this season, despite a contract that runs through January 2020 and a buyout that would guarantee 75% of his base salary if he is terminated without cause. Yet what has led to this success seems much the same as what hasn't worked in recent years, a variation on a known tune. Iowa is undefeated and favored to stay that way over the next few weeks due largely to the production of late-blooming players developed over time, and to all three phases working together to mitigate a thin margin for error. That is all Old Iowa. The Hawkeyes are doing the things they always have done when they have been contenders under Ferentz, including in 2002, '03, '04 and '09. The results only lend this a New Iowa smell.
The defense, for example, is quite good, allowing 314.2 yards per game (15th nationally) and 18.4 points per game (16th). King, the unit's marquee name, is emblematic of the players around whom Iowa usually builds: a three-star recruit, ranked as the 73rd-best cornerback in the class of '13 by Rivals.com, and pried away from MAC schools to sign with the Hawkeyes. Now he is concerned that people craving his autograph will distract from his classwork, though he says his teacher laughs off the occasional distraction.
Still, King's angst is not surprising; he has become a big believer in study time. He never watched film of his own practice habits at Detroit's East English Village High. When he matriculated at Iowa, daily position meetings were a novelty. Now, the 5' 11", 200-pound junior spends every free moment in his iPad: before bedtime, if he needs a study break or, if he's being truthful, when he is bored during a lecture.
His mechanics have improved, yes. "My first instinct is to get [the ball] at the highest point, to get there before the receiver gets a chance to put his hands up," King says. "I've been doing that more, and doing it better. I beat [the receiver] to the ball, basically." But he has the eight picks because his intel is better, too. "There have definitely been a couple times where he's yelling at me, 'Hey, this is what's going to happen,'" fifth-year senior linebacker Cole Fisher says. "He's a good guy to listen to."
It is indeed instructive to listen to King discuss his favorite interceptions, and his pride in the football precognition that prompted them. The first is the pick that effectively ended the Iowa State game, a 31–17 win on Sept. 12, when King turned his head to locate the ball as soon as the receiver broke on an out route. "I knew exactly what he was doing," King says. The second was his interception at Wisconsin during a 10–6 victory on Oct. 3. "They ran the same exact route, same exact coverage, and I was there again," he says. Finally, there was the 88-yard pick-six that came in a 31–15 win over Maryland on Halloween. He was in man-to-man with safety help over the top, and as soon as his receiver stepped back, King attacked. "I knew exactly what play it was—it was a screen," he says. "I really wasn't worried about where [the receiver] was intending to go. I went straight to where the ball was going to be thrown."
Greg Mabin, Iowa's other starting cornerback, lauds King's balance and quick feet. He also believes those are almost ancillary. "He's just a natural with it," Mabin, a junior, says. "He's very good with his technique at the line, reading the quarterback. He likes to cheat a little bit, but he definitely gets away with it."
To field a defense this effective, to win 10 games without losing one, you need players who can get away with things. "It's a catalyst," Ferentz says. Still, there is hardly any recklessness in King's approach at this point. Everything is calculated, from the timing of his arrival to class to the timing of his arrival to the ball. He may well be achieving peak Iowa: A reluctant star thriving on predictability, in every sense.
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The Hottest Sauce in the Universe is only available online and is not, technically, the hottest sauce in the universe. There is nevertheless some truth in advertising: The concoction contains ghost pepper and claims to be approximately 350 times hotter than a jalapeño. It probably shouldn't be applied liberally on food—which is why C.J. Beathard ordered it and went around asking his Iowa teammates if they needed some Tabasco to enhance their meals.
"It's really terrible on your mouth," Beathard says. "You're like over a sink, having to drink water. Some guys, I'll just bet them to do it."
It is no shock that Iowa's quarterback would elicit a reaction by spicing things up. If the Hawkeyes have thrived primarily on order and precision, then the gun-slinging, prank-playing junior is the propellant they need to accomplish something unexpected. His 2015 numbers are good—2,044 yards passing on a 61% completion rate with 10 touchdowns to three interceptions—and have helped the Hawkeyes average 33.6 points per game this fall. But ask around and no one talks about his stats. They talk of plays like the third-and-11 in the fourth quarter of a 35–27 win at Indiana on Nov. 7, in which Beathard scrambled out of the pocket and to his left. A linebacker bore down on him. Indiana had won the play, covering everything you could imagine covering. It was nearly about to force a punt in a then one-point game.
Yet Beathard planted a foot—"Our coaches said it looked like he was turning two," offensive coordinator Greg Davis says—and whipped a pass to junior receiver Matt VandeBerg for a 12-yard gain. Iowa scored a touchdown five plays later. "You can't put a price on it," Davis says. "It's invaluable, that you can do some things that are not exactly the way you draw them up."
The 6' 2", 209-pounder is a picture colored outside the lines, anyway. Home-schooled when he was younger, Beathard and his brothers, Tucker and Clay, accompanied their father to the recording studio regularly, munching on snacks while Casey sang or big-time artists passed through. His grandfather, Bobby, was the general manager for the San Diego Chargers and later worked for the Atlanta Falcons after his retirement in 2000, so C.J. found himself hoisted up by luminaries such as the late Junior Seau or playing tackle football with his brothers on an indoor surface while the team practiced outside. He saw how Seau and Drew Brees and Chesney and Church acted without the cameras on and discovered how much of a construct their fame actually was. "They're just people, really," C.J. says. "Good, down-to-earth people. You don't really realize it until you look back on it."
Does his fearlessness come from all that time spent in the company of stars, his eyes adjusting to the brightness at a young age, to the point that the glare of Saturdays now seems minimal? Beathard isn't sure. But he plays like someone vaccinated against awe. "Growing up, I wasn't afraid of pressure and being in tough situations," he says. "I like that kind of stuff. I want to be in that type of situation." Or as Iowa sophomore guard Sean Welsh puts it: "I'd say he's probably most relaxed when things are chaotic."
In fact, Beathard's rip-roaring play belies a polite, easygoing kid from Franklin, Tenn., who drives a red pickup trick and speaks quickly but quietly. When the Iowa coaching staff decided last winter to move forward with Beathard at quarterback instead of Jake Rudock—the two-year starter who led the Hawkeyes to records of 7–6 and 8–5, respectively, before heading to Michigan as a graduate transfer in April—it's reasonable to believe some unquantifiable metrics were considered.
As Ferentz discusses Beathard, he invokes Brad Banks, the starter for the 2002 team that went 11–2 and finished eighth in the Coaches' Poll. "There was something about Brad that was just magnetic," Ferentz says. "Players just responded to him. It wasn't necessarily what he said, but the way he was. I think of C.J. in that same light. They're not identical players by any stretch. But people are just drawn to him. And the way he plays, the toughness he's displayed, you have to admire the guy."
It's also reasonable to theorize that Beathard's personality has made the roster feel close to invincible. "We feed off his energy," sophomore tailback Akrum Wadley says. "We're going to go how far he takes us."
Sometimes, that's up, up and away. Before the Indiana game, Davis approached his starter with a question: Can we move you a little bit? Beathard, who has dealt with a groin strain for a month now, said he was fine. So, during a timeout with 27 seconds left before halftime and the ball at the Hoosiers' seven-yard line, Davis took him up on the offer. "It's the first quarterback draw we've ran in about five weeks," Davis says.
Beathard took a shotgun snap and broke out of the backfield to his left, following a block. Four Indiana defenders closed in, aiming to get between a hobbled quarterback and six points. There was little time to make a decision.
Which was fine, because there was really no decision to make.
Beathard planted both feet, like he was damn sure of himself. He vaulted into the air, high enough to clear the helmets of Indiana defenders. From his view behind the play, senior center Austin Blythe remembers thinking, He must be feeling better. The only thought Davis could muster? Land softly, big boy.
Land he did, about five feet beyond the pylon. A replay review confirmed Beathard had scored a touchdown. Of course, he would have preferred to run it in. But there was something in his way and his team needed something out of the ordinary, regardless of whether anyone believed he could do it.
"I just took that leap," Beathard says.
With a flat-screen television to his right and a coffee table showcasing dozens of championship rings at his feet, Kirk Ferentz tells a story about garbage.
After a road game this season, two buses carrying the Iowa football traveling party pulled up to unload and hop on the plane. Ferentz was on bus No. 1. However, since it's customary to board the jet back to front, the Hawkeyes players on bus No. 2 disembarked first. So, bus No. 2 pulled in front of bus No. 1, and a manager stepped off, holding open a trash bag. As the players walked by, they tossed the remnants of their postgame sandwiches and snacks into the bag.
"Our bus driver is just dumbfounded," Ferentz says. "He said as long as he's been driving teams around, he's never seen a team do that. Well, I tell our guys: None of you guys have servants at home, I don't think. So, you can take your garbage and put it in the bag. It's not that hard.
"It's not his job to pick up our trash. That's just how we look at it, I guess. It's a little thing, but it's a big thing."
This fairly encapsulates how Iowa football has looked at 2015, with a devotion to doing the little things big. The mentality was ingrained beginning last winter, when longtime strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle discovered a book titled The Slight Edge, which examines "how to create powerful results from the simple daily activities of our life." For the Hawkeyes, this became a religious tome. Seniors in the team's leadership group were assigned chapters to give a report on during fall camp. Fisher read about the concept of the progression of life: plant, cultivate and harvest. "Most people don't want to cultivate, which is putting in the actual work," Fisher says, like signing up for a gym in order to lose weight, but then never going.
Blythe, the veteran center, reported on the consequence of little things adding up. Eat a cheeseburger one day and it won't kill you, he explains. But it's going to build, like having one bad practice in September, then another a couple of weeks later, and so on. "Those things are going to accumulate and it's going to kill you in November," Blythe says. "That's how I relayed it to our team: We have to do the little things, and we have to do them right."
Whatever anyone thinks about the Hawkeyes, they can't do better than they have, and the only way they can get where they want—a perfect regular season and the chance to compete for a national championship—is as long as they don't slip, not for an instant. "The roof can fall in at any time," Ferentz says. "Our margin for error has always been very thin here. But I don't get hung up on wins and losses as much I do the quality of the way we're doing things. Who knows what's in front of us, but at least we're operating the right way."
That, plus a schedule that lacks any top teams from the Big Ten's East Division (Iowa avoids facing Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State in crossover games), may be why the Hawkeyes are 10–0 and moving inexorably toward driving college football mad. Remaining matchups with Purdue and Nebraska appear winnable. If Iowa is unbeaten entering the Big Ten title game, it is merely one exceptional night away from the playoff.
There's another lesson from The Slight Edge that several players cite independently when the book arises in conversation: The idea that 95% of people do what they have to do to be successful, only to lose their good habits once they have achieved their goals. It's that other 5% that continues to do every little thing, every day, to protect all it has worked for.
Iowa has been as good as it possibly can be, but it remains among the 95%, if only for the time being. The Hawkeyes don't have everything they want just yet.