Vandenberg takes the hit for shipwrecked pass offense
In lieu of specifics, calls for the backup QB begin in earnest
IOWA CITY -- James Vandenberg handles the ball every time he walks on the field. He's the quarterback. If he sneezes, it's on video and probably a GIF in the snark-tastic world of the world wide web.
He knew that. That's what he signed up for. He hasn't heard the "Put Jake Rudock in" call, not personally, anyway, but he knows it's out there. The Iowa quarterback room is all business with a touch of good humor in the down time, but there's no joking about this one.
Vandenberg's humor is wearing thin. You know he wants this to work, and you know it pains him that it, simply, doesn't.
"In all honesty, I only hear [the call for the backup, Rudock] from you guys," Vandenberg said Tuesday. "I live in a cave. I go to school and I go to football and that's about it during the season. I haven't heard much of it.
"All you can do is keep trying to do your job and keep moving forward. You can't control what people think. You just have to keep trying to get better and keep doing your job."
Going into the Hawkeyes (2-2) Big Ten opener against Minnesota (4-0), the Iowa passing game is shipwrecked. Vandenberg is 11th in the conference in efficiency (111.07) and yards per attempt (6.3, 98th in the country, one spot behind Wisconsin's Danny O'Brien, who was pulled this week). You know all too well he has just one TD pass this season after throwing 25 as a junior.
This is not all on Vandenberg, but in lieu of any specifics on what exactly is misfiring in the passing game (is it the "sight adjustments" introduced with first-year offensive coordinator Greg Davis?), the quick target of fan frustration and media scrutiny will be the quarterback.
This is a time-tested truism that will reign as long as football is on the planet. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz would like you to view the bigger picture.
"To just look at the quarterback, which I understand is what everybody does on offensive analysis, it’s not quite as simple as that," Ferentz said. "I’ll just say this: I’m glad he’s our quarterback, and I’m glad he’s going to be our quarterback the next eight games. I think he’s a heck of a player, and I think he’s a heck of a young man."
Given the chance to explain what's being asked of Vandenberg, Ferentz doesn't offer specifics. (Vandenberg did say earlier this season that in a quick-passing scheme, he eliminates up to 95 percent of the routes before the snap. And sight adjustments are something that need to be identified by the QB and receivers.)
"It’s a different language that he’s thinking. I mean, he’s thinking like all of us are thinking," Ferentz said. "So, it’s a whole different language he’s thinking. Some of the plays are very different, and some aren’t, but I think we’re all beyond that."
Before he grabbed the role as Iowa's short-range punter this season, John Wienke played quarterback for the Hawkeyes. He and Vandenberg are close, both being fifth-year seniors and coming from small towns in Illinois and Iowa, respectively, about 230 miles apart.
Wienke points to the mileage and consistency Iowa has gotten out of Vandenberg, whose 2011 season bleeds everywhere in the Iowa record books (25 TDs is third all time; 3,022 yards is fourth; 404 pass attempts is No. 2; and 3,083 yards total offense is fifth all time).
"I don't think there's much need for that talk [call for the No. 2], he's always done a good job," Wienke said. "He's pretty much always done what the game plan and the coaches have asked of him."
Wienke knows the new Iowa passing game. It's a pro-style offense in the same realm of what Iowa has run the last few years.
"I don't think James is seeing the game any differently, I think it comes down to us running the offense right now," Wienke said.
When you do get specifics, sometimes they don't make a whole lot of sense.
In the first half in last week's disappointing loss to Central Michigan, Vandenberg missed wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley for an easy touchdown. CMU ran a blitz. Martin-Manley broke off his route and ran into open space, where a safety should've been.
"People on the outside look at that and go, 'Oh my God, look at that,' " Martin-Manley said, "but the thing is, it was a busted coverage and I wasn't supposed to be that wide open. I didn't run the exact route, I ran straight instead of breaking off on my corner.
"James didn't know I was going to do that, that's why he missed me."Maybe it's better not to know the specifics.