IOWA CITY — The next three weeks of Iowa football have little to nothing to do with development. This is a team on the edge of bowl elimination. It needs to throw everything it can in the middle if it wants to play in any sort of bowl, interesting or nondescript.
Barring injury, you will not see No. 2 quarterback Jake Rudock. Iowa (4-5, 2-3 Big Ten) needs two wins in the next three games, starting this weekend with Purdue (3-6, 0-5). Coach Kirk Ferentz wants to put his team in what he believes is the best position to do that.
That doesn’t include developmental snaps for the No. 2 quarterback. It’s senior James Vandenberg the next three weeks.
“I’m not smart enough to predict the next three games, but Vandenberg is our starter,” Ferentz said. “The reason he’s been playing is I think he gives us our best chance to win. That’s my sole motivation. I don’t see that changing, but that’s the thought process.”
That’s the end of the discussion. Vandenberg’s effectiveness in first-year offensive coordinator Greg Davis’ offense is certainly up for debate — he goes into the weekend tied for 15th in the Big Ten with four TD passes in 303 attempts — but Ferentz is locked in must-win mode and there will be no experimentation.
On last week’s road trip to Indiana, Iowa took all four quarterbacks, including Rudock, junior Cody Sokol and true freshman C.J. Beathard. The latter two are redshirting and there’s no thought of undoing that in the next three games.
Ferentz has made a practice of traveling QBs, and other redshirts, to games just to give them a feel of what it’s like. Vandenberg made the trip to Pittsburgh as a true freshman in 2008.
“They’ve been in the hotel every week this year, home and away,” Ferentz said of Sokol and Beathard. “They’re seeing things, processing things and going through the experience. One thing’s for sure when James graduates, somebody’s going to win that job. Just trying to prepare them.”
In August, before the heaviness of the season, Vandenberg, now a UI graduate who’s studying a second major, integrative physiology, with hopes to attend medical school, talked about the rigorous coursework that Rudock, also pre-med, faced.
“He’s just a freshman,” Vandenberg said. “He hasn’t hit all the hard classes yet. Eventually, he’s going to have to play and go to school and that’s not very fun.”
The discussion was, basically, centered on the workload and commitment it takes to be a student and a quarterback.
Four months later, and with the Hawkeyes fighting for their bowl lives, Vandenberg said Rudock had to change his major because his class schedule didn’t match up with football.
“There are obstacles in that and it only gets harder as you play,” Vandenberg said. “Having graduated and declaring a new major, I get to take two hours less than I used to be required to take. Those two hours have helped a little bit, but when you’re playing for 12 games and preparing for 12 games, it certainly makes school more difficult. More props go to the guys who maintain a 3.0 [GPA] and who play.”
Vandenberg has been extremely conscious of his actions this season. No, it hasn’t been covered in glory, but he’s concentrated on how he carries himself, in the lockerroom, in meetings, on the field and in the media. He knows there are three young quarterbacks watching his every move.
“Being a vocal leader on this team, everyone is looking at how you respond,” he said. “I want to make sure my outlook is positive as possible. I talk about it all the time, but you don’t want to act any differently when you throw 25 touchdown passes [which he did last season] or when you throw four.
“You want to get into a routine and go through it every week. That’s something I do and try to portray for the other guys.”
But, Vandenberg said, there’s really nothing that totally prepares you for this, 4-5 and four TD passes.
“It’s something you can’t learn until you go through it,” Vandenberg said. “Certainly, there’s been adversity this year more than others. You just look at yourself in the mirror and see how you deal with it and, more importantly, how the guys around you deal with it. I don’t think it’s something you can prepare for.
“Talking about it doesn’t really help, you have to be there. No matter how many times your mom or dad pat you on the back, it doesn’t cheer you up until you get a victory.”
Vandenberg mentioned his numbers last season. It was the fourth most productive season for a QB in Iowa’s history. Only Chuck Long (27 in 1985) and Brad Banks (26 in 2002) threw for more TD passes.
Where did that go? It’s perhaps the biggest mystery of the ’12 season so far.
Ferentz said this week Davis’ offense has been fit to mesh with the talent on Iowa’s roster. “You try to do what’s best for your players, and you also try to do what’s best for the situation,” he said. “There is a lot of thought that goes into that. It doesn’t always work out, but that’s what we’ve tried to do for 14 years.”
Ferentz was asked if this — the short, quick passing game that has yielded 5.9 yards an attempt, on track to be a five-year low at Iowa — is what Davis wants for the offense or if the offense was shaped this season to what players could handle.
“Everything starts with ‘What can your players do?’ That’s where it always starts,” Ferentz said. “No matter where you are, what you’re doing. If you’re coaching well, you have to do that. So, I think that’s usually the goal we have at the beginning of every week.”
Each week brings changes and challenges of their own. There’s the opponent, injuries and what coaches feel the players can pull off. This week, Iowa again will be without leading rusher Mark Weisman. Purdue will throw what Indiana threw at Iowa’s offense with two big, veteran defensive tackles (Kawann Short, 6-4, 315, and Bruce Gaston, 6-2, 303) gumming up the middle.
“You don’t change your wardrobe every week, at least good teams don’t,” Ferentz said. “You can’t . . . unless guys just get wiped out [injured], then that’s a different discussion, but to think that you’re going to go from being a two‑tight end, two‑back team to a four wideout team, that’s probably not realistic [in a week]. So, yeah, you go with what you have.”
Certainly, it’s a much tougher equation than matching Vandenberg’s 2011 numbers with this season’s, but that also can be a direct comparison that’s tough to get past.
Certainly, everyone Iowa would take those numbers right now.