IOWA CITY — There were no fatal errors, but the quarterback did take a couple of blindside shots. Those could be fatal to winning and to having the same quarterback in the game next week.
But hey, Iowa lived, James Vandenberg lived and the mistakes head coach Kirk Ferentz saw he said were correctable, not fatal.
“I think a lot of things are correctable, that’s the good news,” Ferentz said. “The challenge is how quickly can you correct things and how quickly will that show up on the game field?”
That is the challenge for the Hawkeyes (1-0), who escaped Northern Illinois, 18-17, and now face rival Iowa State (1-0) with a digital bounty of “correctables” to sort through.
Pass protection might be the first on the list. It might be Nos. 1 through 4 on the list.
Vandenberg was hounded last week. Northern Illinois piled up six sacks and held Vandenberg to 129 passing yards and 3.9 yards a pass attempt (both lows for Vandenberg as a starter). The 3.9 number ranked Vandenberg 106th in the country, one behind Tulsa quarterback Cody Green, who produced just 4.0 yards per attempt last week against ISU.
Vandenberg said he has a three-second clock in his head when he drops back for a pass. Last week, it was a single grain of sand in an hourglass.
“Some of the third-and-longs, just the plays that got us into those, whether they were protection miscues or route miscues, you can’t get yourself into third-and-20, third-and-13,” said Vandenberg, who completed 21 of 33 passes, “especially against a team that has pass rushers like they do.
“We had a lot of positive plays on first down, but if we’re not getting a positive play, we have to make sure it’s not a negative play.”
The sequence at the end of the first half kind of said it all for the passing game. Vandenberg hit wide receiver Keenan Davis for a 20-yard gain to NIU’s 33. The Huskies got a little creative, lining up defensive end Joe Windsor across from redshirt freshman guard Austin Blythe.
Windsor sprinted past and forced Vandenberg into an intentional grounding penalty and collecting a sack.
“He finished the half on a sour note, but I told Austin that I went the wrong way on the second play of the game,” center James Ferentz said. “I sat him down and said, ‘Hey, here I am, five years later and I’m still making mistakes.’ ”
Left tackle Brandon Scherff gave up a sack and a few pressures from the outside. On a two-point conversion attempt, tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz missed a block and Vandenberg was drilled in the back. After suffering an ankle injury, right tackle Brett Van Sloten also had his ups and downs.
“That’s no excuse,” Scherff said when asked about his first career start at left tackle. “I had to do my job. Their two ends are really fast and got the edge on us, but we came through in the fourth quarter.”
After pass protection, the communication between Vandenberg and his wide receivers needs work. Wide receivers didn’t separate from defensive backs and, with Vandenberg under pressure, had their backs to their quarterback. Also, there were a handful of plays where Vandenberg threw to where he thought a receiver was going and the receiver wasn’t there. Davis had one of these, so did redshirt freshman Jacob Hillyer.
“The most important part is before you even run the route,” Davis said. “It’s coming out and reading the defense. The few seconds before the play starts, you need to see and scope things out. Once you scope things out, that’s what helps you during the route. If they change it [defense changes the coverage], you’re ready for it.
“The three seconds during the play is quick. It’s kind of nerve wracking, but once you get used to that and once you’re on the same page, it’s easier in games than it is in practice.”
Kirk Ferentz noted that he’s been in a lot of football meetings where the phrase “if you take away that play” had been uttered. The Hawkeyes had one of those, with NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch going 73 yards for a 17-9 lead in the third quarter.
Linebacker James Morris broke down the play in quick order after the game. Contain was lost. He lined up too close to the line of scrimmage and was blocked. Free safety Tanner Miller lost the angle.
“Unfortunately, my alignment was wrong and I didn’t play that play the way I should,” Morris said. “If I could do it over again, I’d back up 6 yards and work over the top and force that quarterback to stop.
“Things you wish you could have back, but I’m sure Iowa State is going to run something similar, so we’re going to have to work on it.”
How quickly can they correct things and how quickly can that show up on the field?