Iowa QB Vandenberg puts together strong 2011

Associated Press  |  Last updated November 23, 2011
(Eds: Updates. With AP Photos.) By LUKE MEREDITH AP Sports Writer It almost seemed odd that few in Iowa were concerned about quarterback James Vandenberg entering the season, even though he had only started two games. Vandenberg has put the Hawkeyes' minds at ease. A 6-foot-3 junior from Keokuk, Vandenberg has quietly put together one of the best seasons in school history entering Friday's regular season finale at No. 22 Nebraska (8-3, 4-3 Big Ten). Vandenberg leads the Big Ten with 238.5 yards passing per game and is second only to Wisconsin's Russell Wilson with 23 touchdown passes. Vandenberg's also thrown just five picks while completing 60.9 percent of his throws. Though Vandenberg has often been overshadowed by receiver Marvin McNutt and running back Marcus Coker, he's been the leader of one of Iowa's best offenses in recent memory. In fact, Vandenberg is on pace for a season nearly identical to the one three-year starter Ricky Stanzi had in 2010. ''We knew he'd come in and give us great leadership and do great things at the quarterback position. I mean, he's been here awhile, been able to watch (Stanzi) develop into a quarterback and he's been learning since he's been here,'' McNutt said. ''He's definitely developed into a great player.'' It hasn't been as easy as it's looked for Vandenberg. Vandenberg's scant experience entering 2011 was the three games he played two years ago in relief of an injured Stanzi. Vandenberg completed less than 50 percent of his passes and threw five interceptions on just 87 tries. But the poise and toughness Vandenberg showed in an overtime loss at Ohio State helped convince the coaching staff that he was their quarterback of the future. Vandenberg's impressive work in practice in 2010 only solidified his grip on the starting job for this fall. ''He's a nitty, gritty tough guy. There's no question in my mind. I think all his teammates have always seen it that way,'' Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. Vandenberg was solid in a win over Tennessee Tech and a loss at Iowa State to open the year, but it wasn't until the Hawkeyes played Pittsburgh in mid-September that they truly knew what they had on their hands. Iowa had no choice but to let Vandenberg air it out in hopes of erasing a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter, and Vandenberg responded with three TD passes as the Hawkeyes completed the biggest comeback in school history by winning 31-27. Vandenberg's been steady ever since, overcoming what had earlier been a sluggish running game and the lack of a true tight end target - long a staple of Iowa's attack - to pull within four TD passes of tying the school record set by Heisman runner-up Chuck Long in 1985. ''I'd like to have 28 touchdowns and zero interceptions,'' said Vandenberg, who insisted he wasn't aware he was leading the Big Ten in passing yards. ''But, we've been doing a good job taking care of the football. That'll be key this week. This is a great defense and it'll be a great challenge for us.'' Vandenberg's also had a big hand in McNutt's sensational senior season, consistently putting the ball in the hands of Iowa's best player. McNutt has caught 74 passes for 1,240 yards and 12 touchdowns, setting Iowa's record for receiving yards and touchdowns in a season. Though McNutt has bailed out Vandenberg more than a few times by using his athleticism and hands to turn wayward passes into big gains, he knows his relationship with Vandenberg has been crucial in 2011. ''We just knew from, since last season that we needed to develop a chemistry of quarterback and receiver,'' McNutt said. ''You start as soon as the season is over. You don't really ever get a day off.'' The one knock on Vandenberg had been his inability to win on the road, as Iowa lost its first three games away from Kinnick Stadium. But he turned that one around with a stellar outing last week at Purdue, throwing for 273 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-21 win. If Vandenberg can win this week in Lincoln - the first game in a new rivalry that promises to be a heated on before long - he won't be overlooked by anyone. ''James is really just learning every week. He's done a lot of good things. Like every week, there are a handful plays he'd like to have back from Saturday,'' Ferentz said. ''But he learns from them. So, it's really fun to watch him grown and develop.''
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