Football is the ultimate team sport. A bunch of great individuals won’t get anywhere unless they work together as a team. One look no further than Notre Dame over the last several years—they get their pick of the best individual talent in the nation, yet have struggled to stay in the upper echelons of college football.
Over the years, Iowa Head Coach Kirk Ferentz has shown an incredible knack for getting the most out of the talent he has, but more importantly, for getting his guys to buy into the team concept. I often wonder what Ferentz could do with the talent of teams like Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, or Michigan, but that is a story for another time.
Of course, a large part of the credit for James Vandenberg’s successful debut as a starting quarterback under the glare of Ohio Stadium goes to Vandenberg himself. It is clear that he prepared as hard as he could in the week leading up to the game. He was the first one in and the last one out of Iowa’s football complex throughout the week. For a quarterback, it is that mental preparation that is at least as important as the physical.
Vandenberg has acknowledged that starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi also played an important role in preparing for the Buckeyes. Even with the ankle that was swelling up like a balloon, Stanzi helped Vandenberg break down film early in the week. Stanzi felt like that was his duty, as a good teammate.
It was great to see genuine emotion from Stanzi towards Vandenberg on the sidelines during the game, as Vandenberg continued to zip pass after pass into his receivers. That is a side of Stanzi that we rarely got to see this year, as his leadership style on the field isn’t exactly the rah-rah approach.
A quarterback must get the proper protection to be successful. Without question, the Iowa offensive line turned in one of their most stellar performances of the entire year against Ohio St. It seemed as thought that group really rallied around Vandenberg’s baptism by fire. The fact that it was against the No. 1 ranked defense in the Big 10 made it all the more impressive.
Lastly, and probably most importantly, I think a large amount of credit for Vandenberg’s solid debut lies with his position coach. While probably known more for his title as offensive coordinator, some forget that none other than Ken O’Keefe is also quarterbacks coach.
Think about how lost Vandenberg looked against Northwestern, compared to how poised he looked at Ohio State. He obviously is the same guy. Well then, what is the primary difference from one week to the other?
The difference is that he had the benefit of a full week of practice with the first team and plenty of guidance from his position coach during the week. A guy doesn’t improve that much without soaking in an awful lot from his position coach.
Vandenberg made the right defensive reads, coordinated the proper pass protection with his o-line and running backs, and knew the routes of his receivers. These mental tasks are all things that are imparted on a quarterback by the coaching staff.
While O’Keefe often seems to be a whipping boy for disgruntled fans frustrated with his seemingly unimaginative and predictable play calling, I think you need to separate all that from his ability to serve as a mentor for his quarterbacks. Feel free to blame O’Keefe for the play calling, if you wish, but please also be sure to give credit where credit is due.
O’Keefe has been with Ferentz from the beginning and a guy like Ferentz isn’t going to keep a guy around for that long unless he is a key contributor.
Another great thing about football is the opportunity to prove yourself again the next week. Many quarterbacks at many levels of football have had one decent game. Vandenberg gets his second career start against Minnesota on Saturday.
Maintaining that high level of play will be the challenge for Vandenberg, his teammates, and coaches against Minnesota at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday.
If the last two weeks have shown us anything, it is that the Hawekeyes must be firing on all cylinders in all three phases of the game if they expect to win. Anything less, and the team runs the risk of taking a three-game losing streak into the long layoff before the bowl game.