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Hawkeye offensive line rebounds from rough start

BY SAM LOUWAGIE | SEPTEMBER 29, 2011 7:20 AM

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The Iowa football team faced fourth down and short in each of its first two drives on Sept. 24 against Louisiana-Monroe. Both times, coaches called for a quarterback sneak from James Vandenberg.

The junior quarterback converted both plays, the first going for the game's first touchdown.

Vandenberg said he didn't take any credit for the team's fourth-down success for himself.

"With those guys in front of me, if I can't sneak for 8 inches, then I'm a real pansy," he said. "I'm confident in those guys, and they're doing all the work. I'm just trying to fall into a crease and go forward."

"Those guys" make up the Iowa offensive line. And after a shakier-than-expected start to the season from one of Iowa's most experienced units, the line played its best game of the year against Monroe.

Iowa averaged just 3.7 yards per rushing attempt against Iowa State on Sept. 10. That number fell to 2.3 against Pittsburgh on Sept. 17.

Some blame for the Hawkeyes' lack of ground success belonged to Marcus Coker and the team's lack of running back depth, but center James Ferentz said the line hadn't been consistently opening up large enough holes for its ball-carriers.

"The biggest thing is consistency and making sure we're giving Marcus plenty of places to go with the ball," Ferentz said. "A lot of that is on us."

The running game wasn't the only place where the line failed to live up to its expectations.

Vandenberg was under constant pressure against Pittsburgh and was sacked four times. Iowa was called for eight penalties in that game — two of them false starts and two of them holding.

But the line played significantly better on Sept. 24, and Iowa's offense had its best full game of the year. Vandenberg wasn't sacked, and the Hawkeyes' only penalty came in garbage time. Iowa gained 180 yards rushing on 5.3 yards per carry, and Coker had a season-best 6.3 yards per attempt.

After the game, the sophomore running back praised the offensive line.

"The O-line was giving us huge holes, and we were running hard," Coker said.

Riley Reiff, Markus Zusevics, and Ferentz are returning starters, and they solidify the tackle and center positions; it's at guard that Iowa has been looking for consistent play. Senior Adam Gettis has played at right guard, and redshirt freshman Brandon Scherff and junior Matt Tobin have rotated at left guard.

Sophomore Nolan MacMillan is recovering from a sports hernia, and head coach Kirk Ferentz said he could return for the team's Oct. 8 game at Penn State. MacMillan started the first six games of last season but hasn't played since then.

James Ferentz said the line "surprisingly" isn't affected by splitting time at guard.

"We mesh pretty well together, and whoever's in there, it doesn't seem to make too much of a difference," he said. "We have a few good guys who can rotate in and out."

The junior center, who said he has been impressed by Iowa's skill-position players this year, said the pressure is on the line to help them flourish.

"We've shown signs that we can do some good things, but whether we can do it on every snap is the big question," he said. "The good news is we've got a quarterback who's probably one of the best, and we've got a great running back. So the pressure is on us as an offensive line to make sure they can do what they have to."


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