IOWA CITY — Pitt went up 24-3 and there was 3:11 left on the clock.
At best, these are the numbers of defeat and embarrassment, especially home at Kinnick Stadium. Further extrapolated for the Iowa Hawkeyes, 24-3 would’ve meant at least a .500 Big Ten run for a 6-6 record and a spot in the . . . whatever bowl would take them maybe the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit two days after Christmas.
You can halt the further extrapolation. Iowa ’11 remains a work-in-progress, but everything remains in front of it in regard to the NU-Big Ten and Legends and Leaders. All it took was the best and clearest football thinking and execution maybe in the country last week, propelling the Hawkeyes’ 31-27 greatest-comeback-in-school-history victory.
The Pizza Bowl was a million miles from James Vandenberg’s mind when he got in the shotgun formation with 3:11 left in the third quarter last week. In two-minute, n0-huddle mode, he calls plays.
Offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe directed the constant communication and shaped Vandenberg’s decisions. The double-sided play card might as well have been a Chinese menu at that point. O’Keefe asked Vandenberg what he was seeing. Vandenberg told him what he saw. Same deal with the three principle receivers in the game, Marvin McNutt, Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley.
After the kickoff, down three TDs, with just more than a quarter left, Kirk Ferentz made the only decision he could make.
This was all-systems go, no-huddle. The throttle was open. It was the only move.
“It was really no button,” Ferentz said. “You look at the clock, at the scoreboard, it was pretty much academic at that point. We needed to get going. . . . It was an academic decision there. Didn’t know how many possessions we were going to have left at that point. Nobody did.”
First play was a 22-yard completion to Davis, who caught the ball falling out of bounds. The review sent the Hawkeyes back to the huddle, which is something the Hawkeyes did in every dead ball situation during this mad scramble .
Iowa huddled three more times during this drive before Vandenberg crashed in from the 1 to pull Iowa to 24-10. It looked as though freshman running back Damon Bullock scored on the play before. It was something Ferentz groused about into late this week. It cost Iowa 31 seconds, so grousing was justified.
The huddles were few and far between after Pitt milked a field goal out of its next drive for a 27-10 lead with 12:09 left in the fourth quarter.
Remember all those failed two-minute drills in ’1o? Don’t underestimate the importance of player telling coach what he’s seeing. That communication with O’Keefe and his quarterbacks has been a constant in his 13 seasons at Iowa. Vandenberg also took the message to the wide receivers and their coach Erik Campbell.
Lots of hands on deck here. Lots of information funneling through Vandenberg, who, by the way, was in his fifth career start.
“I did some things at first because in two-minute I kind of call the plays,” Vandenberg said. “So, I did some things and it helped the coaches see some things, so then we talked it over and we kind of knew how we wanted to attack it.
“There’s a lot of input. I trust everything they [coaches] tell me and I think they trust me enough that when I bring something to the table, they’ll look at it and consider it. I think that was part of our success from Saturday.”
Vandenberg had the sideline view for three years as Ricky Stanzi’s backup. He knows it’s not the greatest view, so the “what do you see” conversations are ultra-important. So is the input.
“They overrule anything and they’re more experienced,” Vandenberg said. “I might think I’m seeing something, but they’ve got more experience in this game. It’s definitely a good working relationship.”
That first scoring drive was crisp, five plays in 1:55, so 23 seconds a play. Then, the Pitt field goal increased the level of difficulty. The conversations on the Iowa sidelines during Pitt’s drive ended up being the “plan.”
The Hawkeyes huddled once during their next drive. Really, that was the only tweak. The Hawkeyes ran one back, one tight end and three wide receivers during their barrage. When the rubber bits settled, that was still Iowa’s offense. The only difference was the throttle, which is dictated purely out of circumstance.
“That was one big thing,” said Davis, who had career highs of 10 receptions and 129 yards. “For this game, he [Ferentz] gave us the green light to play like we can and get it to the athletes. Everybody had to make the plays that they could. That’s all part of winning.”
Iowa averaged 19 seconds a play on the next drive, which ended with a perfect pass that “threw” Davis open for a 14-yard TD that pulled Iowa to 27-17.
The pattern that seemed to emerge was when Pitt employed man-to-man with no safety over the top, Vandenberg hit the receiver in the seam. On that play, Vandenberg’s ninth straight completion, Davis cleared his defender and Vandenberg put it in the window.
Iowa huddled three times on its next drive, which was massaged by a pass interference penalty, but that didn’t slow down the Hawkeyes. The seven plays covered 64 yards in 1:37, with Vandenberg floating a seam pass to Martin-Manley, for 13.8 seconds a play.
“We got it rolling,” said Martin-Manley, who has three TD receptions this season. “I don’t know if it was the two-minute, hurry-up offense or what, but the receivers talked to each other and we said if we want to win, we’ve got to make plays right now. We did that.”
Iowa hit max efficiency on its game-winning drive, when it averaged an even 13 seconds a play. Vandenberg again took advantage of a coverage mismatch, spotting a linebacker on Martin-Manley in man coverage. It was another up route on the seam, this one from 22 yards.
In the end, Vandenberg threw for 399 yards and three TDs to spur the greatest comeback in Iowa history. Also, Iowa was still Iowa. That wasn’t the spread, it was three wide receivers doing their best Frisbee-catching dogs routine and it was a supremely efficient no-huddle, two-minute drill that basically lasted a little more than 18 minutes.
This wasn’t eureka. You might not see it at all today against Louisiana Monroe (1-2). This was the circumstance of 24-3. It was an academic decision made coolly and calmly by Iowa’s coaches with healthy input from Vandenberg and a veteran and talented trio of wide receivers.
“Coach O’Keefe just came down and said, it’s 24-3 from here on out, we’re probably going to have to be in two-minute,” said Vandenberg, whose hand signals at one point had him flexing a biceps out to his wideouts. “We started it and we had some success, so there was no reason to change it. We got that first touchdown and we were still in a hole.
“We just kept running with it, we kept making plays and that’s how we pulled it out.”