EVANSTON, Ill. - If you're looking to pin Saturday's 28-17 loss to Northwestern on Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg, give it your best shot.
Was the senior signal caller perfect? Absolutely not.
Did Vandenberg allow the Wildcats to rush for 349 yards?
Did Vandenberg block a punt that ultimately turned into another Northwestern score?
Was Vandenberg solely responsible for questionable clock management and sketchy in-game decision making?
Iowa's second loss in as many weeks has fans scrambling for scapegoats and demanding answers.
There are plenty of the former and few of the latter.
“They outplayed us,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz told reporters clustered inside a room that normally serves as a ticket office at Ryan Field. “We didn't do the things necessary to win, and that's disappointing.”
Namely, Iowa couldn't stop Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter or running back Venric Mark. Colter, who in previous weeks has been used in a variety of ways by Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, spent the vast majority of his Saturday under center and out-running Iowa's defensive linemen and linebackers. When all was said and done Colter had rushed for three touchdowns and a game-high 166 yards while accounting for a fourth score through the air.
Mark's 162 yards were impressive as well, especially the 72 that came after Iowa quarterback-turned-punter John Wienke had pinned the Wildcats on the 1-yard line at the start of the second quarter. Mark's dash helped setup a 7-play drive that ended with Colter finding the end zone for the second time Saturday.
“The one-yard line, you couldn't ask for a better situation,” Ferentz said.
That was indicative of how things would go for the Hawkeyes, now 4-4 on the year and 2-2 in Big Ten play, as they fell to the Wildcats for the sixth time in their last eight meetings.
There were breakdowns on offense as three times Iowa was flagged for a delay of game penalty, including one while running the hurry-up offense.
There was a blocked punt on special teams when Northwestern's Tyris Jones shot through the line and stuffed a Connor Kornbrath attempt. It took two plays for the Wildcats to punch the ball in for six from the Iowa 4 to take a 21-3 lead.
There were defensive breakdowns galore, as evidenced by the gaudy rushing numbers posted by Colter & Co.
“We're 4-4, we've lost two straight,” Ferentz said. “It's hard anytime you lose. That's tough – two in a row. There aren't many options. You go back tomorrow and get back up on our feet. That's the only choice that we have.”
That soundbite likely will not sit well with fans of the Hawks, many of whom have spent the past week calling on Ferentz to play backup quarterback Jake Rudock, among other younger players. That won't happen anytime soon as it's clear Ferentz and his team are still playing for the here and now.
Vandenberg, by the way, was a solid 24-of-38 passing for 214 yards. He didn't throw for any touchdowns but he didn't turn the ball over either. He held up his end of the bargain, managing the game well (save the delay of game penalties, which were by and large on his shoulders) and spreading the ball around to eight different receivers. Some throws were off the mark, some were on the money. That's how it's been all year for Iowa's starting quarterback, a popular target of criticism in recent weeks.
“We’ve got to play better, that’s it,” he said. “There’s nothing else to say.”
As if poor all-around play and a loss wasn't bad news enough, Iowa also suffered on the injury front. Running back Mark Weisman carried the ball 9 times for 21 yards but left the game in the second quarter. Keenan Davis suffered what appeared to be a hand injury. Joe Gaglione got dinged up on the defensive line but was able to gut through whatever his ailment was. Linebacker James Morris left the game briefly to get his right elbow wrapped early in the game.
Weisman's status is the biggest question mark as the Hawkeyes turn their attention to Indiana next weekend. The sophomore was already below 100 percent entering play Saturday and it appears likely he took a step back health-wise.
“He's injured,” Ferentz said. “That's why he came out of the game. We'll see (what will happen).”
Having covered Ferentz's teams for the last 13 seasons, that doesn't sound good.
Ferentz has come under fire in recent weeks for the team's spotty play. His weekly radio call-in show on Wednesday night was a dumpster fire of the highest degree as one cowardly caller said he hoped Ferentz was hearing from the Cleveland Browns about a return to the city where he spent time as an NFL assistant. The caller hung up. Ferentz wished him better days ahead.
Saturday didn't turn out to be any better for the 14-year head coach as he was heckled by a handful of fans wearing black and gold while the team made it's way off the Ryan Field playing surface.
“Great clock management, Coach,” one fan yelled. “Way to go!”
“Nice job, Kirk,” added another. “Worth every penny.”
Ferentz kept his chin up, his eyes locked on what lay ahead. It's the attitude he's displayed, for better or worse, since his hiring in the fall of 1998. What's done is done. It doesn't do any good to look back. Onward and upward.
“We'll get back to work tomorrow and see what we can do about next week,” he said.