IOWA CITY — The first half flowed beautifully for James Vandenberg and the Iowa passing offense. The balance was impeccable and the Gophers didn’t know what to expect.
The Hawkeyes (3-2, 1-0 Big Ten) rushed for 163 yards on 19 carries and passed for 165 yards on 19 pass attempts while jumping out to a 24-0 lead in Iowa’s victory over the Gophers (4-1, 0-1). It was Shangri-la for Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, a staunch balance believer.
“That’s the best 30 minutes of football that we’ve played,” Ferentz said. “The second half wasn’t terrible, but the first half is what you’re looking for.”
If the first half was Shangri-la, the second — for Iowa’s offense, anyway — was Hell’s Half Acre. Vandenberg completed just 5 of 12 passes for 28 yards into a defense that went sort of crazy. The Gophers blitzed both corners on several occasions. How crazy is that?
“That’s something I’ve never seen from anybody, what they were doing today, double-corner fires, from the field and the boundary,” said Vandenberg, who finished 18 of 31 for 192 yards and a TD. “It caught us off guard and we didn’t adjust very well.”
Thus, you saw passes that went to wide receivers who weren’t looking for them. There was one target for tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, the rest were intended for veteran wide receivers Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley. In the face of double-corner fire, it was miscommunication after miscommunication, which is where Iowa’s pass offense finds itself fading into for stretches going into the off week before traveling to Michigan State (3-2, 0-1) on Oct. 13.
This what they mean when they talk about sight reads, hot routes and “being on the same page.”
“We’ve just got to be on the same page,” said wide receiver Keenan Davis, who led Iowa with six catches for 50 yards. “It’s just hot routes. It’s something we have to work on and keep getting better at it, but I think we caught the ball better and had an overall positive day.”
Two examples of this working came when Minnesota cornerback Troy Stoudermire showed blitz early. Vandenberg and Davis spotted it. The first time they connected for a 20-yard completion that Davis made into a “yards after catch” highlight reel. That led to Vandenberg’s 1-yard TD run. The second time it went for a 6-yard gain on a third-and-5 and helped the Hawkeyes drain 6:31 off the second-quarter clock and take the 24-0 lead into halftime.
There also was the flea flicker. It went for 47 yards and a TD to a wide-open Jordan Cotton, who’s emerged as the No. 3 receiver, for a 17-0 lead. There also was the running game that comes with “checks,” which basically gives the offense options pre-snap at the line of scrimmage and is something Vandenberg directs.
The Hawkeyes’ O-line goat-herded the Gophers, particularly on the left side, with running back Mark Weisman going for 177 yards (8.4 yards a carry). The only negative yards Iowa’s run game was charged with was taking a knee for a minus-3 at the end of the game.
“James Vandenberg put us where we wanted to go,” left tackle Brandon Scherff said. “In the huddle, he calls two and sometimes three plays. He says, ‘If they’re lined up in this, I’m going to call this.’
“We practice like that all the time. It’s whatever they give us for a look. He does a great job seeing that and he’ll continue to do a great job.”
If you think that’s what Vandenberg took home with him, you’re wrong. He knows the second half — the double-corner blitzes — presented opportunities to exploit. That’s what stuck with the senior.
“That’s all I can think about,” Vandenberg said. “It’s a huge positive that we did some good things today. We were very balanced.
“We got ourselves into a lot of trouble we didn’t need to get ourselves into. As we get deeper and deeper into the Big Ten season, you just can’t do those things or they’ll come back to haunt you, especially in a close game. The line played great, there’s some stuff on the outside that we have to get cleaned up.”