IOWA CITY — At some point during last week’s blowout loss to Penn State, James Vandenberg’s little sister had enough.
It was a rough night for Vandenberg, Iowa’s senior quarterback. The Hawkeyes’ offense was stifled and he could do nothing to lift it. Iowa was caught flat-footed by the Nittany Lions and the Kinnick Stadium crowd voiced its displeasure in boos. And certainly, there were other words that would fall under the “bleep” category.
Isabel heard enough.
As one heckler a few rows above her went after her older brother, she slid down her jacket to show a No. 16 Vandenberg jersey. The heckler noticed and muted his complaints.
Big points for the move by the 8-year-old fifth-grader. She showed style and went over the top without lowering herself into the pit that stadium discourse can become. Sort of like her brother on Tuesday.
“She likes to throw her fists around to people who are yelling,” James Vandenberg said with a laugh. “That’s Isabel for you.”
Right now, family, the 105 Hawkeyes and the 12 or so coaches in the Hayden Fry Football Complex might be the only ones who’d go to the mat for Vandenberg, whose numbers continue to lag from the pace he set last season.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz fielded 15 questions about the quarterback position during his Tuesday news conference going into the Hawkeyes (4-3, 2-1 Big Ten) road trip to Northwestern (6-2, 2-2) this weekend. The questions ranged from what it would take for coaches to pull Vandenberg out of a game to what kind of QB backup Jake Rudock is.
Ferentz kept his composure and stayed resolutely in Vandenberg’s corner.
“I don’t know if I can quantify that,” Ferentz said when asked how far Vandenberg is ahead of Rudock, a redshirt freshman who’s never thrown a pass in a game at Iowa. “He’s our starting quarterback, if that’s what you’re asking. We all believe in James. I think I speak for everybody involved in our program, team and coaches.”
Under first-year offensive coordinator Greg Davis, Iowa’s passing game continues to be less than what it was a year ago, when Vandenberg threw 25 TD passes and former Hawkeye wide receiver Marvin McNutt broke nearly every receiving record Iowa has.
Given the opportunity to identify specifics, frank assessment is thrown into the general wash of “we” and “execution.” Davis isn’t allowed to speak to the media during the season, per Ferentz policy. So, that leaves Vandenberg, a plain spoken integrative physiology major from Keokuk, in the eye of the storm.
He’s holding up better than many would.
“As soon as to come out or to get moved, obviously, that would be a different situation,” said Vandenberg, who has three TD passes and five interceptions this season, which are really the only numbers you need. “As long as they want me in there, the boos, the criticism, none of that stuff really bothers me.”
Ferentz isn’t one for declarations. After 14 seasons, you should know that. Tuesday, you didn’t hear a “never say never” when it came to a quarterback change, but the interpretation was clear — it’s Vandenberg’s ball.
“We’re trying to make a habit of getting our best guys on the field, the guys that we feel give us the best chance to win,” Ferentz said when asked if Rudock has provided competition for Vandenberg. And then when asked the follow up on whether or not Rudock is ready to play, Ferentz said, “We won’t know that until he starts playing. That’s usually the million dollar question.”
Ferentz’s quick scouting report on Rudock went like this: “I think he’s got the potential to be a good quarterback. You guys have seen him in practice. I mean, he looks like he did in August with the open practices. I think he’s a good thrower with good command and works extremely hard. He’s a lot like James Vandenberg in my mind. He’s got all the characteristics that give a guy a chance to be a good player. He’s into it, very smart, very competitive. He throws the ball well. He’s going to be a good player.”
Meanwhile, Vandenberg kept his focus on the immediate community around him. His ego, his sense of self, remains intact, which is more than a lot of people could say after they’ve been booed by a stadium crowd.
“I think it’s probably from how I was raised,” Vandenberg said about “getting through” this. “A lot of it reflects coach Ferentz and [strength coach Chris] coach Doyle and coach Davis, in the way they talk to us and talk to me.
“It’s all about responding, whether it’s failure or success. It’s about what you do the next day. That’s something I’ve kind of embraced and that’s something we’ve embraced as a team.”