Vandenberg eager to carry Hawkeyes


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James Vandenberg’s mother, Ann, and 7-year old sister, Isabel, have a routine every night.

The two sit cozy on their couch while Ann types a text message to Isabel’s four older siblings, writing, “Say your prayers. I hope you have great dreams. Goodnight, I love you.”

As the Moon races up the darkening Iowa sky, the two make predictions of who will be the first to respond.

It’s always James.

Things haven’t really changed for redshirt freshman James Vandenberg. When Iowa’s comeback guide, junior quarterback Ricky Stanzi, lay wincing on the Kinnick Stadium field turf after a tackle by Northwestern’s Corey Wootton in the second quarter, Vandenberg again responded.

Placing his glazed black helmet over his sandy brown hair, he took the field poised.

“There’s no real time to be nervous,” Vandenberg said. “We practice it all the time, the next man going in. So as [Ricky] was going down, I knew it was my turn to go in.”

He did his job. He took the ball from under center as he has done an infinite amount of times.

By the end of his tenure at Keokuk High School, Vandenberg stood as the most prolific passer in the state of Iowa. He holds 12 different state records — career-passing yards (7,709), touchdown passes (93), and in his senior year, he broke the single season passing record (3,729).

“The thing that set him apart as a high-school quarterback was his accuracy,” said Jayson Campbell, James Vandenberg’s high-school football coach. “I know you didn’t necessarily see that [Nov. 7] but if James is anything, it’s accuracy. He completed more than 70 percent of his passes in high school. And we threw the ball down the field as much as any high-school team you’re going to find.”

The game didn’t go Iowa’s way last week. The Hawkeyes lost, 17-10, to Northwestern, and with it, their hope of an unbeaten season.

Vandenberg finished his first extensive action completing 9-out-27 passes for 82 yards. Although Iowa has outscored its opponents 148-57 in the second half over 10 games, the Northwestern contest marked the first time this year the Hawkeyes have failed to produce second-half points.

With camera lens and inquisitive eyes positioned directly at the standout signal-caller from Keokuk in the postgame interview room, waiting for an explanation, Vandenberg gave only one — himself.

He didn’t blame his inexperience or his teammates. Instead, he humbly swallowed his in-game miscues.

“James listened to the whole postgame all the way to Des Moines [following the game],” Ann Vandenberg said. “His friends were saying, ‘James, turn that off. Let’s not listen to it.’ He was like, ‘No, no. I’ve got to listen to it, I’ve got to get better.’ ”

Brassy chatter concerning Iowa’s journey into Columbus, Ohio, this Saturday may fill message boards, hallways, and Facebook (which Vandenberg doesn’t have). But the game isn’t just win or lose.

It’s for the 2009 Big Ten title and a trip to the Rose Bowl.

Vandenberg appears to be unruffled by thoughts of facing one of the nation’s top defenses in Ohio State or the magnitude of what the contest means beyond the regular season. Instead, it excites the 20 year old.

“They’re a good team. It should be a very exciting place to play,” he said. “It’s what you kind of dream about growing up, being in a situation like this. And here it is.”

Since Iowa’s first loss of the season, Ann Vandenberg has barely slept. She traveled into Iowa City on Monday to eat pizza with her eldest son, and the mother couldn’t help but be consumed with maternal worries.

She feels the weight atop her son’s shoulders.

“You can’t carry it all alone,” she told him.

And characteristic of her son, he replied, “There are a lot of people counting on this.”

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