Iowa's triple threat

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IOWA CITY -- Kirk Ferentz couldn't come up with anything for Marvin McNutt.

During his Tuesday news conference, the Iowa coach dished out nicknames to the two other playmakers who've run Iowa's offense this season. Quarterback James Vandenberg, the fresh-faced junior from Keokuk, was given the "Opie" tag, as in Opie Taylor, the red-headed son played by a very young Ron Howard from the 1960s TV show "The Andy Griffith Show."

"Yeah, looks a bit like 'Opie' and acts like him," Ferentz said. "I think it's all an act."

McNutt dodged the nickname bullet. Then again, he's a senior who needs 12 receptions to have his name on every record an Iowa receiver can have. Ferentz always has deferred to seniors, and in this case, McNutt can call his shot on a nickname.

Vandenberg and Coker are underclassmen. They're fair game.

Sure, this was the last regular-season news conference of the year, and Ferentz was in a light mood. But you can bet the mortgage he wouldn't be joking about nicknames for players if he didn't feel extremely good about their effort and production.

You know about McNutt (74 receptions, 1,240 yards and 12 TDs). He's having the greatest season by a wide receiver in Iowa history. Coker has 1,297 rushing yards, 14 TDs and 232 carries. His season is headed to the top three in Iowa running back history. Vandenberg has 23 TD passes and could give Chuck Long's record 27 TD passes in 1985 a run with two games left.

And yes, Vandenberg has heard the "Opie" thing before.

"I have no idea who that is," Vandenberg said. "I've heard that three or four times. I have no idea what that means."

Coker, whose straight-faced serious nature has been noted many, many times this season, earned not so much of a nickname as a reference point. When asked if Coker takes the same approach with coaches as he does with the media, Ferentz said most definitely yes.

"I'll say the same thing I said about James a minute ago," Ferentz said. "Marcus doesn't give you the 'Opie' stuff. Marcus is kind of like the Buckingham Palace soldier. He gives you no reaction at all.

"I think just evidenced by what he's done this year already on the field, he's just a very tough, tough-minded and physically tough guy."

You'd have to go back to 2002 to find a trio as productive as McNutt, Coker and Vandenberg.

The '02 Hawkeyes finished 8-0 in the Big Ten behind quarterback Brad Banks (second in Heisman voting, 26 TD passes), running back Fred Russell (1,264 yards, seventh all-time) and/or tight end Dallas Clark (43 receptions, Mackey Award winner) and/or wide receiver Mo Brown (48 receptions, 20.1 a catch and a then-record 11 TDs that McNutt has since broken).

This trio is making that kind of music heading into the Hawkeyes (7-4, 4-3 Big Ten) meeting with No. 21 Nebraska (8-3, 4-3). UNL coach Bo Pelini was asked about two of the three earlier this week.

On McNutt, "He is going to be a good player on Sunday.”

Vandenberg, "I think he manages the game well . . . . He's pretty efficient as a quarterback. He doesn’t throw a lot of [bad] balls and makes good decisions.”

The "Opie" thing with Vandenberg falls away pretty quickly. Remember, he used to mess around with former Iowa linebacker and Indianapolis Colt Pat Angerer in some sort of MMA (a brotherly love thing that ended with near unconsciousness).

For a more practical example, check the helmet he took to the chin last week against Purdue while delivering a 51-yard TD pass to McNutt.

"He's a nitty-gritty, tough guy, there's no question in my mind," Ferentz said. "I think all his teammates have always seen him that way. [The McNutt TD pass] I think it's a great illustration. To me if a quarterback can't do that, you're going to have a hard time winning."

Ferentz then mentioned McNutt's finishing ability. It's not everyday Iowa has players who want the ball, get the ball and get done what needs to get done. That's basically McNutt's key stat, getting it done.

"He's finished plays, too, no matter what position," said Ferentz, who compared McNutt's value to the 2011 Hawkeyes to Ronnie Harmon and the '85 edition. "Different kind of performer, but same value there. When you have one of those guys, that's really good.

"Marvin is helping break all the stereotypes of us not having receivers. Kind of throwing that right out the window."

And yes, of course, Ferentz is fine with Coker's quiet, serious nature. Most coaches would, however, take production over verbiage.

"All the time," Ferentz said with a laugh when asked if he wondered what was going on inside Coker's mind.

"I've always preferred to judge actions more than words and expressions. You get fooled sometimes."

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