IOWA CITY, Iowa — Nearly everyone assumed Iowa would lean on senior quarterback James Vandenberg until the rest of the offense found its footing under new coordinator Greg Davis
One week into the season and the Hawkeyes' stagnant passing game is a major concern with Iowa State (1-0) visiting Kinnick Stadium on Saturday.
Iowa (1-0) survived a fierce test from Northern Illinois last weekend, beating the Huskies 18-17 on running back Damon Bullock's 23-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Bullock rushed for 150 yards, easing concerns about who would handle the bulk of the carries for the depth-challenged Hawkeyes.
The passing attack that many thought would blossom under Davis' leadership simply wasn't there in the opener.
Vandenberg threw for just 129 yards — averaging less than 4 yards an attempt — and was sacked six times. Though Vandenberg completed 21 of his 33 tries, none went for scores.
"A lot of it is what they did. And what's good is the other half is stuff we can correct easily," Vandenberg said. "It's first week miscues all across the board, and we know we've got to get those fixed to put points on the board."
Vandenberg, playing behind a line with three new starters, had Huskies in his face all afternoon. Though it is typically assumed that the Hawkeyes will always be solid up front, the opener showed that this year's version of the offensive line isn't there yet.
Iowa State's defensive line isn't considered a standout unit yet, but they promise to be a handful for the Hawkeyes. The Cyclones held Tulsa's Cody Green to 23 completions in 49 attempts and picked him off to set up the game-clinching touchdown late in a 38-23 win.
"We gave up six sacks. That's what stands out to me. I mean, that just screams that we need to improve this week," Iowa center James Ferentz said. "We have a lot we need to work on as an offensive line with communication and fundamentals."
Vandenberg completed balls to six different receivers on Saturday. None of them made much of an impression in the opener.
Senior Keenan Davis, who caught 50 passes in 2011 and is expected to grab even more this fall with Marvin McNutt's graduation, caught five passes for 41 yards. Kevonte Martin-Manley led the Hawkeyes with six receptions for a paltry 31 yards.
Vandenberg and his receivers had communication issues throughout the game. But Davis, like Vandenberg, said he's confident those mistakes will be corrected this week.
"We need to clean up some little things. Yard depth and just man-on-man, getting off the line," said Davis, a former offensive coordinator at Texas. "Just tidying up routes and everything."
Vandenberg threw for 25 touchdowns in 2011 and was widely considered to be the best returning passer in the Big Ten. But he's also shown a knack for playing below expectations in road games, and his performance in Chicago won't change that perception.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz on Tuesday defended Vandenberg's play in the opener, saying that the Hawkeyes woes on offense were a team-wide problem.
"We have to protect him better," Ferentz said. "(Vandenberg) did a good job running our offense, running our team. I just thought he did a good job overall. Our passing game wasn't what we want it to be. But it'll get better."
If there was any consolation for Iowa's offense after scoring just 18 points and having to settle for four field goals, it was the play of Bullock in his first start as the go-to back for the Hawkeyes.
The Hawkeyes gave it to him 30 times, a much higher number than anyone expected, and Bullock showed he could handle it.
"We didn't know what to expect," Ferentz said. "He did a lot of good things, certainly ... he finished the ballgame with carrying a heavy load and then, secondly, finished strong."