IOWA CITY – The last 73 times James Vandenberg called a run play in the huddle, he’s turned and handed the ball to Mark Weisman 70 times. Reinforcements are on their way.
Tuesday Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz confirmed opening day starting running back Damon Bullock is cleared to play after suffering a concussion against Northern Iowa. The sophomore’s return to the lineup couldn’t come at a better time as the Hawkeyes face the top defense it has all season.
“Certainly you want to have all your weapons when you face a defense like this,” quarterback James Vandenberg said. “Damon’s a great weapon in the pass game, protecting, he can do it all. So having that change up him and Mark, those different paces are going to be nice.”
It’s a change-up that could make Iowa even more dynamic of an offense. Before the injury, Bullock averaged more than 4.3 yards a carry for 280 yards. He also caught nine passes for 87 yards in two and half games. Weisman took the baton from Bullock and averaged 7.3 yards a carry amassing 505 yards.
Saturday the two will be healthy for the first time all season against one of the Big Ten’s toughest run defenses.
“You definitely like a challenge like that. You like every challenge,” Weisman said. “Every week is a challenge no matter what.”
The Spartans welcome the Hawkeyes to East Lansing with a run defense allowing 86 yards a game. It’s a defense that ranks tops in the conference and 10th in the nation. It’s allowed just one running back to gain more than 50 yards in a game – Central Michigan Zurlon Tipton. The lone exception was Ohio State’s quarterback Braxton Miller who rushed for 136 yards.
On the other side, the Hawkeyes have eclipsed 150 yards in four of its five games. All four came with either Weisman or Bullock as the feature back. Saturday, they become a duo.
“They both, in a limited amount, have shown they're both capable players, two different types of players certainly, but they both have done a good job this year,” Ferentz said. “We're going to need them both moving forward certainly. If we end up playing them at the same time, that's great. They're clearly different types of players. Just, knock on wood, hopefully, they keep improving.”
Senior cornerback Micah Hyde received most of the attention during Iowa’s bye week after Saturday morning’s arrest. But most of the Hawkeyes spent their off week like most fans, watching football.
James Vandenberg went home to Keokuk to watch his brother, Gabe’s football game against Williamsburg.
“They lost, by six to Williamsburg in an extremely epic game,” Vandenberg said. “We had it on like the 20 yard line, down by six with 30-or-so seconds to go and couldn’t get it in. It was a good game.”
Anthony Hitchens got away from the gridiron and into the theaters to see Taken 2. Brandon Scherff went hunt, but “didn’t shoot anything.” Mark Weisman spent it watching college football as a fan, not as a football player.
“When you’re watching you still see those little things that you see on the game film. You can never get that out of your head, probably for life now,” Weisman said. “But for now, it’s a little more fun to watch that than the game film.”
Then there’s always rest. For a lot of the players in the trenches, the time was nice to heal bumps and bruises that still are painful but don’t hold you out of the game. The week off left them reenergize for the remaining conference schedule.
“You can probably hear it in my voice, I’ve got a little sickness so I took some Nyquil and knocked myself out,” Steve Bigach said. “Gotta get a little bit of rest so I can have a productive week personally, but it was nice to kind of relax and watch a little bit of football and hang out and be a guy for weekend.”
Preparing for the road
The leaves falling off the trees, children are searching for Halloween costumes and still Iowa has not played a true road game. Saturday marks the first true road game of the year for the Hawkeyes. Iowa traveled to Chicago to open the season against Northen Illinois at a neutral site.
The last time the Hawkeyes made their first true road trip this late in the season – 1962. Iowa played Indiana and won 14-10 on Oct. 13 – the same date as Saturday’s game. Before that, the latest inaugural road trip was Oct. 18 to Wisconsin in 1958.
“The trip to Chicago is a good exercise. Certainly the environment in the stadium was not like what we'll face on our next four away games. Yet at least we went through the process of being on the road,” Kirk Ferentz said.” I thought certainly the young team that was a positive. But nothing like what we'll see this week. At the end of the day, we just have to try to block that out and be a little more focused than you would be at home.”
With Micah Hyde’s incident over the weekend, he was stripped of his captaincy. Players vote each week to determine Iowa’s four captains. Head Coach Kirk Ferentz took Hyde’s name out of the running.
“That definitely does hurt. Since I’ve been here I’ve tried to lead my team in the right direction,” Hyde said. “This year being my senior year, I wanted to have the captain name underneath my belt. It’s unfortunate, like I said, it’s my life, I’ve got to learn from it.”
Linebacker Christian Kirksey was voted captain to in place of Hyde joining James Vandenberg, James Ferentz and James Morris.“It’s just time for me to take leadership,” Kirksey said. “Time for me to step up as a defensive player. It’s my junior year, I just gotta make sure I take that step and be prepared for the game here to come.”