Wine Online: Hold on Tight

Sept. 25, 2011

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Here are some facts, figures, observations and opinions about Iowa’s football team after the first four games of the 2011 football season.

The Hawkeyes concluded the nonconference portion of their schedule with a 3-1 record. Had they protected three late-game leads at Iowa State, it would be 4-0. On the other hand, it would be 2-2 if not for a stirring school-record 21-point comeback that beat Pittsburgh.

Two close games, one ending on a sour note, the other in Iowa’s favor. One game was a three-point loss, the other a rousing four-point victory. Better get used to close games. We’re going to see more of them.

Iowa is clearly a better football team since the season opener, and most of the improvement has been in the last game and a half. Since late in the third quarter of the Pitt game, Iowa has outscored its opponents 73-20.

Offensively, much of the improvement can be attributed to a newly unveiled hurry-up offense that plays to Iowa’s strength, which is an exceptional passing game. Defensively, personnel changes have been a positive factor. Jordan Bernstine and Tanner Miller are the new safeties, and Thomas Nardo, a walk-on senior who has never lettered, was installed at tackle.

Coach Kirk Ferentz praised the performance of all three after the 45-17 whipping of Louisiana-Monroe. Nardo topped the tackle chart with 12, Miller had 7. In addition to another fine defensive performance, Bernstine returned three kickoffs for 72 yards.

James Vandenberg patiently served as Rick Stanzi’s understudy for three years, awaiting his chance to be Iowa’s starting quarterback, and when his time came, he seized it. His coaches and teammates expected him to do a good job, and they have not been disappointed.

The Keokuk junior is on track to throw for 30 touchdowns, which would be a school record, and well over 3,000 yards, which would put him in the company of Chuck Long, Chuck Hartlieb and Stanzi. A note of caution: These projections are risky. Tavian Banks was on his way to becoming Iowa’s first 2,000-yard rusher in 1997 before injuries made him settle for 1,691.

For now, we can say that Vandenberg ranks second in Big Ten passing yardage and third in passing efficiency. Since late in the third quarter of the Pitt game, he has completed 71.2 percent of his passes (35-49) for 432 yards and six touchdowns. It is worth noting the Hawkeyes were in a no-huddle mode much of that time.

Vandenberg seems to have the knack of making those around him better. The performance of Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley, who have combined for 33 catches, 467 yards and six touchdowns, has been a pleasant surprise to Ferentz. “We did not see this coming,” admits the Iowa coach, who had only one established wide receiver going into the season.

That, of course, was Marvin McNutt, whose next touchdown catch will equal the Iowa career record of 21. McNutt and Davis currently rank among the top six receivers in the Big Ten for catches and yards.

Ferentz has been searching for a backup to tailback Marcus Coker, and he might have found one in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game. Freshman Jordan Canzeri, seeing his first action, made the longest play of the game, but his sparkling 40-yard run was nullified by a holding penalty, Iowa’s only infraction of the game. Had the play counted, Canzeri would have finished the game with 70 yards on six carries.

Iowa’s defense has been up and down. It resembled Norm Parker’s better units in the fourth quarter against Pittsburth and the first half of Saturday’s game, then allowed the visitors to make two sustained drives for touchdowns to open the second half.

In looking at the schedule, I see no games they can’t win. Nor are there any they can’t lose. As stated earlier, get ready for close games. There will be a lot of them.

Big Ten stats show Iowa ranks 10th in the league in points allowed and 10th in total defense. If those figures don’t improve Iowa will have a hard time winning half its Big Ten games.

The kickers have been the highlight of Iowa’s special teams. Eric Guthrie and Mike Meyer are among the Big Ten’s best in punting and placements, respectively. On the down side, Iowa ranks last in kickoff coverage, a statistic that rankles the Iowa coaches, who have worked hard to find improvement.

The Hawkeyes have a week off before beginning eight straight Saturdays of Big Ten warfare. In looking at the schedule, I see no games they can’t win. Nor are there any they can’t lose. As stated earlier, get ready for close games. There will be a lot of them.