DES MOINES, Iowa – Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg has had one of the most miserable senior seasons anyone could imagine.
It's not going to cost him his job.
Coach Kirk Ferentz reiterated Tuesday that Vandenberg is his starter for Saturday's game at Northwestern (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten).
Many wondered if Iowa (4-3, 2-1) might go in another direction after Vandenberg and the Hawkeyes were dismantled by Penn State 38-14. But Ferentz was adamant — as he's been all season — that Vandenberg will be his quarterback until his eligibility is up.
"He's our starting quarterback," Ferentz said. "We all believe in James. I think I speak for everybody involved in our program, team and coaches."
By many measures, Vandenberg has been at the helm of one of the nation's worst passing attacks.
Vandenberg, who threw 25 touchdown passes in 2011, has thrown just three in seven games this season. That's the lowest number for every BCS-affiliated conference team in the country.
The Hawkeyes are averaging just 5.7 yards per attempt, a key tool for measuring the overall success of a passing attack. Only Washington, at 5.6 yards, is lower among major programs; Northwestern, it so happens, averages just 5.7 as well.
Iowa is also 118th out of 124 teams in passer rating and 105th in yards per game. In essence, everything has gone wrong in the passing game — something Vandenberg is well aware of.
"It just all comes down to execution," he said. "Blocking long enough. Running the right routes. Throwing the ball to them. Catching and getting yards after the catch. I think in every one of those phases, we can get better."
The one moment that perhaps best encapsulates the ineptitude of Iowa's passing game this season came against the Nittany Lions.
Already down 24-0, Vandenberg's first pass of the second half was a bullet — right at linebacker Michael Mauti. Whatever life was left out of a stadium that had already been booing the Hawkeyes was gone after that interception.
Ferentz was quick to take responsibility for the loss and deflect blame from Vandenberg.
"To evaluate what happened Saturday, any one player's performance or job status, that would be tough to do. There wasn't much that went well," Ferentz said. "To try to say that it was one person or one area I think would be missing the boat. It was a thorough beating we experienced, and we played a team that really played well. We didn't come close to matching their tempo or their execution."
Vandenberg clearly hasn't been the only problem with Iowa's passing game.
For a variety of reasons, things haven't clicked under first-year offensive coordinator Greg Davis. Production is down across the board except for running back Mark Weisman, and he's recovering from a sprained ankle.
Iowa is averaging a shade under 21 points per game, 10th in the Big Ten.
Redshirt freshman Jake Rudock has been groomed to replace Vandenberg since the day he arrived on campus. Though Ferentz didn't insert him late in last week's blowout loss, he appears to hold Rudock in the same high regard as Vandenberg.
"I think he's got the potential to be a good quarterback," Ferentz said. "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."
But unless Vandenberg gets hurt, Rudock won't get a chance to prove all that on the field until 2013. Ferentz isn't ready to give up on Vandenberg just yet.
"As long as they want me in there, the boos, all the criticism, none of that really bothers me," Vandenberg said.
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