IOWA CITY – Iowa had to change its offensive and defensive coordinators last offseason, and the change was so rare and different that we wondered if the wheel was getting reinvented here.
It was not.
Not, that is, unless the Hawkeyes have switched to a square wheel on offense. Which certainly seems possible given the way that unit has performed this season, no more so than in the Hawkeyes’ 38-14 Saturday night nightmare of a loss to Penn State at Kinnick Stadium.
Penn State changed almost its entire coaching staff from the one that had been in place for what seemed like the last century-and-a-half to Bill O’Brien and his collection of sharpies, and it really did reinvent a wheel. At least by Penn State’s standards.
O’Brien spent the off-season just trying to assure Penn State’s fans and players that, yes, Nittany Lions football would go on in a dignified way after Joe Paterno. At least when the NCAA wasn’t threatening to rule otherwise.
After the NCAA kept the Lions' program alive, O’Brien installed an NFL offense with NFL pace in the staid program from State College, and taught the players who stayed with him how to run it. He is making an All-Big Ten candidate out of quarterback Matt McGloin, and who would have dared dream such a thing several weeks ago?
And if the subject is quarterbacks, I’ll steal from Brent Yarina of the Big Ten Network, who tweeted this during Saturday’s game:
@BTNBrentYarina Matt McGloin is the QB I expected James Vandenberg to be this season.
Oh my, eh, Hawkeye fans? Oh, to have offensive tempo and theory, and results like Penn State’s of late, eh, Hawkeye fans? Oh, to have Vandenberg at least resembling fellow senior McGloin.
Oh, to have Iowa's offense at least resembling Penn State's. I'll say this now, and again in this piece: The blame isn't all Vandenberg's. It. Is. Not.
But the subject of the week around these parts won’t be the upcoming Iowa-Northwestern game, which lost a load of luster after both those teams lost Saturday. The subject will be quarterback. As in, is there a chance in the world that Kirk Ferentz replaces Vandenberg with someone, No. 2 QB Jake Rudock, anyone.
It won’t happen, of course. It just won't.
"Right now, James is our quarterback," Ferentz said.
Should it happen? That depends if you’re playing for this season or the next three. Or does it?
If you’ve met Vandenberg, you can’t help but like and respect him. He is an excellent representative for Iowa and Big Ten and NCAA football. He stood and answered every last question reporters had for him late Saturday night, like he always does. But he hasn’t played well this season, and he really, really didn’t play well against Penn State.
The Hawkeyes had more than one reason for why they stopped running on a treadmill and started running over opponents during the 2008 season. A fellow named Shonn Greene immediately comes to mind.
But a major reason was the Iowa coaching staff’s midseason decision to replace Jake Christensen at quarterback with Ricky Stanzi. What would Iowa's wonderful 2009 season been like had Stanzi not been seasoned at its start?
Midway through that '08 season, it was time for a change. Stanzi's brilliant fourth-quarter in Iowa's 24-23 win over Penn State -- a team Ferentz dominated when it was coached by Paterno -- was a payoff for the switch at QB.
It surely pained Ferentz to pull incumbent quarterback Christensen, and it wasn't a decision that came without a lot of hand-wringing. But doesn't loyalty go just so far in big-time, big-money football?
Look, none of us outside the Iowa football compound know if redshirt freshman Rudock is ready to roll. Maybe he isn't. He hasn’t thrown a pass that counted since he was a prep in Fort Lauderdale.
Maybe Iowa's next great quarterback is someone else for all we know. But if Rudock really is the No. 2 quarterback as listed on Iowa's depth chart all season, shouldn’t he be good to go in the middle of his second season in the program? Rudock and everyone other quarterback on the team have had just as much time in Greg Davis' offense as Vandenberg.
Iowa is heading into its eighth game of the season and its quarterbacking isn’t progressing. Its offense isn't progressing. Again, it obviously isn’t all Vandenberg’s fault. It. Is. Not. Plus, any Iowa QB will be behind the 8-ball from now on with blockers Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal now out with injuries.
But you can’t change the entire offense. Or its coordinator, Greg Davis, though Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema would beg to differ.
Speaking of Bielema, he changed quarterbacks during the season’s third game (a week after he fired his offensive line coach). That may not be why the Badgers have won five of their last six games, but the coach is surely glad he switched from junior transfer Danny O’Brien to redshirt freshman Joel Stave.
The Badgers are playing like themselves again because their power-running game is working again, but Stave has done what has been needed of him.
Anyway, recent Hawkeye history has taught us one game doesn’t connect to the future this season. Lose at home to Central Michigan, win at Michigan State. Squeeze past the Spartans on the road, get clobbered by Penn State at home.
But for all the unkind words about Iowa’s offense, the Hawkeye defense can’t be let off the hook. It was awful. This wasn't Michigan State's uninspiring offense it was defending, this was O'Brien and McGloin and a full bag of fundamentals and execution.
McGloin was poised and surgical in spreading 18 completions over nine different receivers in the half, which ended with PSU ahead 24-0.
Penn State’s tight ends had more receptions (9) in the half than all of Iowa’s players combined (7).
How bad was the half? PSU kicker Sam Ficken, who entered the game 3-for-9 in field goals this season, booted a 34-yarder and outscored Iowa 6-0 by himself. Meanwhile, Iowa All-America candidate Mike Meyer was 0-for-2 in field goals after going 14-of-15 in his first six games.
How bad was the defense? Penn State gained over 500 yards and rushed for 217. Its point-total would have been in the 50s had it stopped seizing opportunities after building a cushy lead.
But the lasting image was another Vandenberg interception with :31 left in the game and 95 percent of the 70,000 fans already on their way home.
That was a nice win at Michigan State. But it also was fool’s gold.
Some of James Vandenberg's comments after the game:
"We got beat in every phase of the game today. We weren't able to get anything done on offense.
"(Weisman) We weren't really sure what we were going to get. ... Rather be safe than sorry."
On getting boos: "They were well-deserved. We scored seven offensive points. We've got to do a lot better than that."
"It wasn't exactly what we were expecting, but they did a lot of things that we were expecting. They're a really good defense. They mixed things up really well."
"I don't know if I can put my finger on any one thing. We didn't run the ball well, we didn't throw the ball well, we didn't protect it. That's a recipe for getting whupped."
"I'm one of the leaders on that offense and a guy calling a lot of that shots. The offense is a reflection on me and the other 10 guys."
"If we knew that answer we would have scored 50 tonight. We didn't execute in any phase of offense. We didn't throw it well, we didn't catch it well, we didn't run it well, we didn't block well. We didn't do anything you do and have to do to win and we have to get that cleaned up."
"You keep rolling with the punches. I thought we hung in there and fought despite not playing well. Nobody got down. There were mistakes all over the place, but I thought we kept going. That's a positive. If nothing else, that was a positive. We've got to make sure we watch this film and move on because we've got five more tough games."
"Execution in all phases of the offense. We've got to do better. We've got to find a way to get more points on the board.""I don't think there are exact answers. We haven't played as well as we could, we haven't executed in all the various situations. We've got to do just about everything better."