Do you remember the Iowa-Ohio State game in 2009?
Freshman quarterback James Vandenberg was called on to start for the 9-1 Iowa Hawkeyes who had lost their previous game at home to Northwestern. Iowa led 10-0 in that game in the first quarter and had the ball early in the second when Ricky Stanzi was sacked in the endzone, injuring his ankle. The Wildcats recovered the fumble on that play for a touchdown, and Iowa would not score again, losing 17-10 and their dreams of a perfect season frittered away. Vandenberg came into the game against Northwestern and Iowa failed to move the ball after racking up nearly 200 yards of offense in the 1st quarter with Stanzi under center.
To say that I was remotely optimistic about Iowa’s chances the next week at Ohio State, in the Horseshoe, a place where Iowa had won just twice in my lifetime, would be a gross overstatement.
However, the Hawkeyes weren’t thinking that way and Vandenberg did not play like it was the first start of his career.
On Iowa’s first drive of the game (Iowa won the toss and deferred that day, a rarity in the Ferentz era), he was 4 of 4 passing for 33 yards. He was faced with a 3rd and 10 after two rushing plays didn’t go anywhere, following a first down. He completed a seven-yard pass and Iowa punted.
On Iowa’s next possession, he moved Iowa down the field and threw a perfect across the body throw for an apparent touchdown to Trey Stross, but Stross was unable to hang on to the ball. Iowa settled for a field goal in that instance, but Vandenberg proved he could play against the best of the best in the most hostile of environments.
In the first quarter, Vandenberg was 7 of 8 for 52 yards…in The Horseshoe. The one incomplete pass is normally a touchdown 9 times out of 10. He threw the far outs, he showed touch, checked down when primary options were not there.
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For the day, he finished 20-33 with two touchdowns and three interceptions including several dropped balls and a fortunate completion to Tony Moeaki. He struggled with the throw that most young and or inexperienced quarterbacks struggle with, which is the throw over the linebackers and in front of the safety against zone looks, what I call the ‘bracket throw’.
He wasn’t perfect but few opposing quarterbacks are even ‘good’ in The Shoe, and Vandenberg was certainly good.
He showed some poise in the pocket, he scanned the field and was not afraid to take a hit, his throwing mechanics defied his age and experience and he seemed very much in control of the offense.
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After the first quarter, I told my father that Vandenberg has more physical tools than Ricky Stanzi. I still believe that, but it will be the intangibles that will tell Vandenberg’s tale…what kind of a leader is he? Does he inspire his teammates the way Stanzi did? Can he flush mistakes and come back the next drive and keep attacking? Will he spend the extra time in the film room that separates the best from the pack?
We won’t know the answers to these questions for several months. However, he was able to learn from one of the best leaders Iowa football has seen in my lifetime. Stanzi’s up there with Chuck Long as it comes to pure offensive leadership. Vandenberg saw Stanzi’s work habits and as is typically the case when you see a peer putting in that kind of work, you tend to follow suit. Stanzi’s Iowa legacy is going to be felt for the next several Iowa football seasons as it relates to the example he set for his understudy.
If Vandenberg paid attention and walks down the path Stanzi blazed, he’ll be successful in the intangible department. Then his work ethic will set the bar for Jake Rudock or AJ Derby and you keep going down the line.
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I am willing to bet Vandenberg will excel at the ‘extra time’ and film study portion of the job. Whether or not he inspires others I cannot say. Whether or not he will master the ‘bracket throw’ remains to be seen. The stark reality of that play is few college quarterbacks truly master it and it comes with experience. Austen Arnaud, a great person and a five-year starter for Iowa State, did not master that throw. That was my biggest concern for him as he entered his senior year last year and after watching their first game against a weak opponent, I knew he hadn’t progressed in that area.
But Arnaud is hardly alone…you might see 15 to 20 quarterbacks a season that can consistently make that play and even then, few are perfect against it. Stanzi had a few picks over the middle, but he was able to throw it in the bucket more times than not.
In Iowa’s offense, with the plays they like to call and the positions they like to feature, completing this throw several times a game is a must, because it’s going to be there.
Vandenberg has put in a lot of film study and thousands of mental reps. He made progress on the practice field last year and he left us with great memories in our first look two years ago in Columbus. Do yourself a favor and watch the highlights from that game embedded above.