Before we get started, it’s a bye week for the Hawkeyes here in Iowa City. Through the remainder of the week and into next week, I am going to give a grade report for each unit through the non-conference slate. It’s only 4 games, and the bye week comes before a tough test at Penn State, so take it for what it’s worth. The grades will most likely change as we head into Big Ten play, but you get a small glimpse of what to expect when you watch your team through its first 4 games. So today, we start with the quarterbacks.
This should really say “Quarterback” rather than “Quarterbacks.” Through 4 games, starter James Vandenberg has taken all but 6 pass attempts; those belong to A.J. Derby. Its safe to say Vandenberg has exceeded all expectations so far. That’s evident in Iowa’s offensive scheme in their last game vs. Louisiana-Monroe. As fall camp came to close, Kirk Ferentz is on record stating “(Vandenberg) may be the most talented quarterback in my tenure.” We now see why.
The run game was the focus of the offense for the 1st 2 games of the season. Marcus Coker and Mika’il McCall got their chance to run the ball in Iowa’s opening game vs. Tennessee Tech, a 34-7 victory for the Hawkeyes in a rain-filled game at Kinnick. As the Hawkeyes traveled to Ames, their philosophy stayed the same. Coker pounded the rock 35 times in a game that went to 3OT. However, Vandenberg had his chances. It was in the Iowa State game that many began to see some flaws in his game. Many times he failed to look off the receiver he was throwing to. Too many times defenders were on top of the receiver when the ball arrived, and that was attributed to Vandenberg. His second flaw was the lob. When Hawkeye fans hear about the lob, they think back to Jake Christensen, a talented quarterback who never put air under the ball. Vandenberg had the same problems. All of his balls where tight spirals than never got over the top of a defender, and those that did, well let’s not talk about how terrible those looked. He finished the game with 207 yards and 2 touchdowns, but some were wary about his ability to lead the offense. Then the Pittsburgh game happened.
If Vandenberg becomes one of the greats in Iowa history, fans will point to the Pittsburgh game, not the Ohio State game in 2009, as his coming out party. Sure he went into Columbus and lead a game tying drive late in the 4th quarter as freshman in his first start, but he didn’t win. He did vs. Pittsburgh. Down 24-3 with 3:11 left in the 3rd quarter, the Hawkeyes had no choice but to throw the ball. What ensued was one of the best performances Iowa has seen from a quarterback. In the 4th quarter, Vandenberg was 14-17 for 162 yards and 3 TDs. He finished the day 1 yard shy of 400, with 3 TDs and 1 INT. The comeback win had fans clamoring for Vandenberg to get 30 pass attempts a game. And it happened.
In the only game to date following Vandenberg’s “heroic” performance, the junior quarterback threw the ball 32 times, completing 21 passes 270 yards and 3 TDs. He seems to be the focus of an Iowa offense that lacked a true identity for the first 11 quarters of the season. He quickly has turned to a fan favorite, and for good reason. There is no reason to think that Vandenberg can’t be as succesful as Ricky Stanzi was, if not better. The Iowa defense won’t be as good as when Stanzi was here, so Vandenberg and the Hawkeye offense will be relied upon to win games in 2011.
Let’s not overlook the snaps A.J. Derby has taken, or can we? Derby only has 6 dropbacks in 2011. He completed 3 of the 6 passes he has thrown for just 30 yards. It was a minor shock when it was announced that Derby beat out junior John Wienke. Derby, the hometown product who turned down offers from Oklahoma and Florida, has been the subject of criticism with many wondering if his future is at quarterback. He proved those doubters wrong by having a good “Kids Day” performance in front of the Iowa fans and by beating out Wienke for the backup role.
Grade – A-
While Vandenberg has been spectacular in his last 5 quarters, he wasn’t flawless. He has trouble looking off his primary target, something that could hurt him once he enters Big Ten play. He made some questionable throws in the Iowa State game, Iowa’s only blemish in the 2011 season, but his overall performance shouldn’t be overlooked. He’s completed nearly 63% of his passes for 1095 yards and 1o TDs. He has 3 rushing TDs, only 1 INT, and been sacked just 5 times. He’s already grown in the 4 games in 2011, so it’ll be exciting to see where his season finishes amongst some of the best in Iowa history.