IOWA CITY — Everyone involved in Iowa’s passing offense is scoring A grades. This is on the written test they’re given near the end of the week, kind of summarizing the gameplan and making sure everyone knows what they’re doing.
That’s the written test. The next step is taking what they know and putting it on the field, Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis said Tuesday.
The passing game needs to fall into place if the Hawkeyes (3-2, 1-0 Big Ten) want to emerge from their off week and make any sort of noise in the Legends Division.
Running back Mark Weisman has come out of nowhere and has averaged 6.9 yards a carry in three games as the primary back. After allowing six sacks in the opener, the offensive line has coalesced quickly, with three new starters getting into a groove against Minnesota last week.
Quarterback James Vandenberg and the wide receivers clicked in the first half against the Gophers, best showing of the season so far, but tapered off in the second half in the face of a blitzes and miscommunications.
“Consistency is the big word going around the office,” Davis said, “being able to do things well for an extended amount of time. It comes with a lot of things — guys being on the same page, James getting us in the right plays, which he’s done an unbelievable job of.
“We had five explosive runs in the game Saturday (a 31-13 victory over Minnesota). I think three of those were into run blitzes that he read correctly and got us into the proper play. So, he is playing, from my standpoint, extremely well, even though statistically, I understand his numbers are not where I thought they would be after five weeks and I’m sure where he thought they would be.
“But I’m extremely excited with the way he’s running our football team.”
Vandenberg’s numbers are down across the board. The glaring one is touchdown passes. A QB who had 25 last season is stuck on two going into Iowa’s sixth game , at Michigan State (3-2, 0-1) on Oct. 13.
“It’s a big deal because I think we’re all a little bit surprised,” said Davis, who’s in his first year at Iowa. “It’s not a big deal in terms of what we’re looking at or what he’s looking at. I mean, would you like him to be better? Yeah, you’d like him to be better, sure, but at the same time, you’re not going to try to force the issue. I mean, they’re [TD passes] going to come within the normal flow.”
As a starter last season, Vandenberg finished with a pass efficiency of 138.44 and a yards per attempt of 7.5, both of which were fifth in the Big Ten last season. This year, the efficiency is 112.95 and the yards per attempt is 6.3. Those are 10th and 10th in the conference.
Those numbers radiate beyond Vandenberg. They say that all the moving parts in the passing game are learning on the job in Davis’ offense. That’s why you have passes to receivers who aren’t looking and open receivers not being found. That’s why Davis mentioned miscommunication after assessing wide receivers.
“We missed [wide receiver] Kevonte [Martin-Manley] on a breakoff route versus a blitz the other day,” Davis said. “Again, it was the way the play was installed in spring training, but it’s the first time it’s come up live. We’ve continued to work it each week. It was just a matter of the rhythm of what you can do on that particular route.
“We missed a hand signal one time in the ballgame against a blitz situation, and all these are things that are not new, but they’re new to that situation in a game. They’ve been worked on in practice, and usually what happens when the guys get to the sideline and you get them on the headset, ‘Coach, I can’t believe that; I mean, I understand.’ But they’re things we’ve got to get cleaned up.”
Earlier this season, Vandenberg said he eliminates as much as 95 percent of where a ball can go during a presnap read on a quick-passing play. On third-and-long, he keeps as many options open as long as he can.
Tuesday, Davis shot down the notion that Vandenberg “locks on” targets. He said there wasn’t enough time in the interview to go over everything Vandenberg is asked to survey before the ball is snapped.
“The first thing that quarterbacks are taught to do is where are my protection problems because there’s always an opportunity for them to be in a protection situation,” Davis said. “So that’s where everything starts. And then after that, there’s various kind of reads, whether or not we’re full‑field reading based on rotation or whether or not we’re in a progression kind of read. I haven’t felt like James was locking onto someone through the first five ballgames.
“The one thing that happens with a guy like James is that he does so much study during the course of the week, a lot of times he’s getting a pre‑snap tip as to what he feels like the defense is going to do, and that pre‑snap tip will, in some cases, eliminate progressions. So a lot of times he gets through his progressions pretty quickly.
“But yeah, I mean, I don’t think that’s a problem. I mean, I think he’s used his eyes to move people away, and it’s something we’ll continue to work on.”
Full transcript from Iowa OC Greg Davis’ interview on Tuesday: