Commentary: Vandenberg struggling, but taking too much blame


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You don’t have to tell James Vandenberg. He knows.

He knows the Iowa offense has failed miserably in its first two games. He knows it has let down a feisty Hawkeye defense. And the fifth-year senior also knows where fans direct blame and anger when things go wrong: At the quarterback.

“It’s all part of the job,” Vandenberg said with a grim nod after Iowa’s 9-6 loss to Iowa State on Sept. 8. “I take as much responsibility as anybody else. We’ve got to do a better job of moving the ball and putting points on the board, and that definitely starts with me.”

Many Hawkeye fans strongly agree. They booed at Kinnick and vented on Twitter. Someone even edited the Wikipedia bio on Vandenberg’s Google page to nickname him “D---face McBlowgame.”

But blaming only Vandenberg for the Hawkeye offense’s listless performance this season is focusing too narrowly.

The Keokuk, Iowa, native hasn’t played well. He has misfired on several short passes. He’s thrown the ball too quickly at times, before a play could develop. He has locked in on one receiver too often, which doesn’t work as well now that Marvin McNutt is gone. Vandenberg seems to have taken a step back from his performance last season, rather than the leap forward many hoped for.

But remember: he passed for more than 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2011 — numbers almost identical to predecessor Ricky Stanzi’s excellent senior year. That type of ability doesn’t just vanish. And that’s why, if Iowa can solve some of the other problems facing its offense, Vandenberg’s performance will look better.

Vandenberg’s receivers didn’t give him much help against the Cyclones, dropping at least eight passes in the game. About half of those were inexcusable, wide-open drops that would have been substantial gains.

The Hawkeyes have insisted on throwing 2-yard screens and out routes for much of the first two games. New offensive coordinator Greg Davis liked to get the ball to his receivers out in the open field at Texas. Iowa’s receivers aren’t Texas’, and they haven’t been able to break off any long gains.

Vandenberg was sacked six times against Northern Illinois on Sept. 1, often by defenders who came at him full speed from behind. The Hawkeyes’ protection was better against Iowa State, but it never let the quarterback get comfortable in Week 1.

The season has started off ugly for Iowa. Vandenberg is 11th in the Big Ten and 115th nationally in both quarterback rating and yards per attempt. As bad as those numbers are, they’re as much a symptom of Iowa’s brutal offensive performance as the cause.  

Iowa’s senior quarterback volunteered himself for blame on Sept. 8. He said the dropped passes have “nothing to do with” the team’s struggles, and that the team has practiced Greg Davis’ new system “so many times that we should have it down.”

But he also acknowledged that the team needed to improve at more than just one position.

“I don’t think you can put your finger on one thing,” Vandenberg said. “As a unit, we have to play better … It’s going to take all 11 of us to get moving in the right direction and get some things done.”

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