September 8, 2012; Iowa City, IA, USA; Iowa Hawkeye running back Greg Garmon (4) is tackled by Jeremy Reeves (5) of the Iowa State Cyclones in the second quarter at Kinnick Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-US PRESSWIRE
There's not much to say at this point. Not in the history of this website has there been an Iowa squad with so glaring a particular weakness as this year's team. It's been years since something that every pundit saw as the strength of the squad turned into a pumpkin so quickly. The entirety of Sunday's game -- and, frankly, the entirety of the season -- hinges on its improvement.
So yes, Saturday -- and next Saturday, and the nine Saturdays after that -- is all about the passing game. Iowa desperately needs to find a way to improve production out of the passing offense and put points on the board through the air. Without that, there is no hope for the running game. Without that, there is no protection for the defense. Without that, there is nothing stopping the 2012 season from slipping away before it even gets started.
It has to be built from the outside in. Iowa dropped eight passes in last Saturday's 9-6 loss to Iowa State. And yes, while some of those would not have mattered much in the final calculation, a couple did, in particular the touchdown pass dropped by Mark Weisman. That drop was a failure of every phase of the game: Playcalling (would you, layperson, make the decision to use your walk-on fullback as the secondary target on the most important catch of the game?) and execution (obviously, Weisman didn't expect it, either). Don Shumpert's dropped reception on fourth down in the final quarter was equally backbreaking, and equally credited to both player (catching the ball in your body?) and coach (letting him catch the ball with his body?). Drops will happen, but those kind of drops, in those situations, cannot be.
I have a friend who used to coach high school football who remarked on Iowa's offensive line through two games: "They look like an underclassmen-heavy high school line. They come out week one and do a nice job in run blocking, but botch the pass protect. They spend a week with the coaches yelling at them about pass protection, and so they focus on that and completely forget how to run block. They're chasing their tail right now." I'm going to go with that as the best explanation possible for what I saw Saturday where Austin Blythe (understandable) and James Ferentz (not so much) got manhandled by the Iowa State defensive tackles.
At quarterback, Vandenberg's stuck in his head. After the game, he said the following (via Hawkeye Drive):
That is not the sound of a quarterback confident in himself or his team. That is the sound of a quarterback second guessing what was a pretty good read blown up by a phenomenal defensive play by the guy who was unquestionably the best player on the field. You know what made RIcky Stanzi great in 2008 and 2009? He'd throw a STANZIBALL, he'd forget about it 30 seconds later, and he'd keep firing. It seems like Vandenberg has lost that ability this year. There's a lot of talk about the ball "coming down". There's a lot of talk about throwaways. There's a lot of high-stepping in the backfield. None of those things are good. All of those things are Jake Christensen. We don't need Jake Christensen.
There's another great thing about Stanzi in 2008 and 2009: He and his teammates learned how to win the close ones, and they never gave it up again. It started with a string of close losses -- Pitt, Michigan State, Northwestern, Illinois. The Penn State game changed that and set Iowa off on a year-long winning streak. Vandenberg and this team still have to find that, and if they're ever going to, it has to start tomorrow, and it has to start on offense.