Football: Vandenberg at center of Hawkeyes’ struggles

Dan Ryan, Sports Editor

It turns out you don’t need two players to have a quarterback controversy.

A 38-14 drubbing at the hands of Penn State in which the Iowa offense gained only 209 total yards led to louder calls for changes to the Hawkeye lineup, and beleaguered quarterback James Vandenberg has presided over an offense that has not lived up to expectations this year. After putting up 27.5 points per game last season, the unit has taken a big step back in 2012, scoring just 20.9 per contest this year. In the meantime, their defense has improved, leaving offense as the primary goat for the season’s early struggles.

Vandenberg said he knows questions about the team’s performance begin and end with him.

“Playing quarterback for as long as I have, you realize that it’s going to fall on your shoulders,” Vandenberg said at Big Ten Media Days in July. “And that’s fine, that’s how it’s going to be. I need to continue to grow and make sure everybody is coming with me. The blame goes on me, and I’m willing to take it.”

And Vandenberg has taken much of the blame for this year’s disappointment. The senior has completed just 55.8 percent of his passes through the season’s first seven games, tossing only 3 touchdowns compared to 5 interceptions. From a statistical standpoint, the year has been a far cry from Vandenberg’s breakout junior year when, after taking the reins from the graduated Ricky Stanzi, he completed 58.7 percent of his passes for a dazzling 3022 yards and 25 touchdowns while throwing only 7 picks. 

Despite a loss in the Insight Bowl last year, the Iowa offense entered the season expecting to take a big step forward. A veteran offensive line and a more experienced Vandenberg were expected to lead to a potent Hawkeye attack, and the senior quarterback said one of his goals prior to the season was to improve upon his 2011 performance.

“You could go on and on about higher completion percentage, less interceptions. Those  are all things I realize, goals I have,” Vandenberg said. “You want to throw 50 touchdown passes with no interceptions at 95 percent (completion), but that’s not going to happen. But you want to do better than last year.”

Instead, Vandenberg and the offense have  regressed, and the chances the unit will back on track took a huge blow during the matchup against the Nittany Lions. Iowa lost left tackle Brandon Scherff and right guard Andrew Donnal to season-ending injuries last weekend, creating serious questions about the offensive line’s ability to keep an already-jittery Vandenberg in the pocket and on his feet.

Continuity on the line “is extremely important,” senior center James Ferentz said at Big Ten Media Days. “You get more comfortable just in how you guys act. You know how guys are going to step. Communication becomes a little less important the more comfortable you are playing next to each other. You just know naturally what’s going to happen. The offensive line is five guys working together.”

Although the start to the year leaves a lot to be desired for Vandenberg and the offense, five games remain on the schedule for the unit to get in a rhythm and accomplish their preseason goals, something the senior quarterback said is very important to him and the team.

“I’ve heard so many good speakers and so many great leaders and great athletes speak over the years and hear them talk about setting goals,” Vandenberg said. “They all talk about setting goals and how they do it every year just to keep them refreshed and keep them going. That’s something I definitely take part in, and I’m sure the team does as well.”