Column: Vandenberg Deserves Some Blame, But Not All Of It

By Scott Dochterman, Reporter

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By Grant Burkhardt

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Iowa’s good soldiers walked into the postgame news conference and gave the same answers you’d expect after a 24-21 loss at Indiana.

They gave credit to their opponent. Their failure on individual plays had everything to with execution or miscommunication, not the game plan or coaching staff. It’s a brave front they put up once again as part of their third straight loss.

“It just comes down to execution,” Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg said.

Well, that’s true. Vandenberg can’t throw an interception at the goal line that took three points off the board. But there’s more to Iowa’s defeat than just a lack of execution. Sometimes it’s about putting their players in the best position to win, even if it goes against convention, tendency or philosophy.

Vandenberg was a rising star a season ago with 25 touchdowns and more than 3,000 passing yards. He’s got a live, accurate, strong arm. He’s a smart player who knows situational football as good as anyone his age.

Now as a senior, Vandenberg has become the favored whipping boy for Iowa’s worst team in five years. Statistically, everyone’s criticism is right. He’s thrown four touchdowns in nine games. Iowa rated 118th in pass efficiency. Is it time for a switch? Well, there are plenty of positions that could use a talent upgrade. But the offensive issues are far from Vandenberg’s doing.

Iowa’s perimeter-based passing scheme concocted by new offensive coordinator Greg Davis limits Vandenberg’s ability to make plays down the field. It relies too heavily on receivers making moves in front of defensive backs for extra yardage. Think of it as beating guys off the dribble.

Davis bemoaned the lack of perimeter speed in a spring news conference. Yet his three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-rubber-filament philosophy negates the team’s best offensive asset: Vandenberg.

Vandenberg can throw the slant, post or dig routes as good as anyone in the Big Ten. We remember the rifled slant to Marvin McNutt against Ohio State in 2009. He also can throw a fade along the sidelines, as we saw earlier this year at Michigan State. But that’s not the passing game priority this year. Iowa averages 5.7 yards per attempt, last in the Big Ten and 120th nationally.

This year’s all about hitches.

“That’s how they’re giving it to us right now,” Vandenberg said. “We’re taking what they give us. That stuff’s (middle routes) not overly there or otherwise I’d be begging for it on the sideline.”

Fair enough, but with a talented corps of tight ends, it seems unusual the passing game doesn’t work inside out. The receivers don’t have either the room or the speed to make plays once they catch the ball on the perimeter. Either way, the offense is broken, and it’s too late to get fixed this year.

In back-to-back weeks Iowa faced defenses that appeared vulnerable for any quarterback. Northwestern was 11th in pass defense and lost both of its cornerbacks. Indiana was last in total defense, first downs per game, 11th in scoring defense and allowed six opponents to score at least 27 points.

Yet Iowa managed just limited success against Northwestern in a 28-17 loss. Against Indiana, the Hawkeyes sustained just two offensive touchdown drives.

Vandenberg cost Iowa at least a field goal with his third-quarter interception. Iowa led 14-10 and faced a first-and-goal at the 9. The Hawkeyes then suffered a pair of negative runs and Vandenberg’s pass toward Jordan Cotton’s back shoulder was too close to cornerback Antonio Marshall, who picked it off.

That play was one of many that Iowa’s players and coaches will remember when they’re sitting at home during bowl season. At 4-5, it’s unlikely the Hawkeyes will end their season somewhere warm except in front of a heater. Vandenberg deserves his share of blame, but it’s not all his fault. After, he’s told to bring a crossbow to a shootout.

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