Iowa Could Open Up Offense for Vandenberg
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) Facing a 17-point, fourth-quarter deficit, Iowa abandoned its running game, spread the field and attacked Pittsburgh through the air -- a decision that led to the greatest comeback in school history.
The Hawkeyes (2-1) saved their necks in Saturday's thrilling 31-27 win over the Panthers by going away from what's typically been a balanced offense. They had little choice, of course, but the performance by junior quarterback James Vandenberg in the final 12 minutes raises the question of whether Iowa might be best served throwing the ball more than usual.
Vandenberg, who tore up the Iowa prep record books as a spread quarterback at Keokuk High, completed 17 of his last 20 passes and threw three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Coach Kirk Ferentz praised Vandenberg after the game for his knack for operating the hurry-up attack.
Iowa's had 16 plays of 20 yards or longer so far this season, and 15 of them have come on throws from Vandenberg.
"People have this (perception) Iowa is a run team. I think that's misleading. You do what you have to do to win," Ferentz said.
Part of the reason Iowa could open things up starting with Saturday's non-conference finale against Louisiana-Monroe (1-2) is that, at least for now, its strengths lie in the passing game.
Starting running back Marcus Coker missed significant time in fall camp with an unspecified injury and he is off to a slow start. He has 267 yards through three games, but it's taken him 69 carries to get there. The Hawkeyes know they need someone to emerge as a change-of-pace back to spell Coker and give opponents a different look, but that hasn't happened yet.
In the past two games, Iowa running backs have logged 59 carries. All but one of them have come from Coker, who's handled more than his fair share of the load since the Hawkeyes lost promising freshman Mika'il McCall in the opener.
"He's getting close. Time will tell," Ferentz said of Coker. "He looked a lot closer the other day than he did two weeks ago."
The depth is much more impressive at receiver.
Senior Marvin McNutt continues play like one of the nation's best, with 18 catches for 313 yards and a pair of TD grabs, and he bailed out Vandenberg more than once against Pitt with his ability to snag errant passes.
The question was whether junior Keenan Davis could scare opponents enough to keep them from keying too much on McNutt. Davis has been more than that so far, and redshirt freshman Kevonte Martin-Manley has blossomed as a dependable third option.
Davis has 17 receptions, two more than his career total entering the season, for 254 yards, and has shown the ability to make plays in the open field. Martin-Manley caught Vandenberg's final two TD throws on Saturday from 25 and 22 yards out, sprawling across the goal line for the eventual game-winning grab.
"It definitely makes it harder on defenses because they can't really focus on one guy," Vandenberg said. "We're just lucky to have a lot of talented guys, from receivers to our tight ends, that can catch the ball."
Though he's often viewed as an old-school coach, Ferentz has already shown he's willing to tweak things on the fly.
The Hawkeyes shook up their defense after falling at Iowa State in triple overtime, 44-41. Defensive end Dominic Alvis was inserted into the starting lineup against Pitt, and Jordan Bernstine started at free safety as Micah Hyde was back to cornerback after two games at safety.
The moves looked shaky at first as Pitt raced out to a 24-3 lead. But the unit stiffened in the fourth quarter and Hyde picked off a pair of passes, including an interception with 1:41 left to seal the win.
"We're a developmental team at best and we're just trying to find the best combinations," Ferentz said. "We're probably a team that's going to be going through some changes, probably over the 4-5 weeks too as we learn more about who we are and what we are."