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FOR JAMES VANDENBERG, THE MEMORY REMAINS CLEAR. IT WAS NOV. 14, 2009, AND THE then redshirt freshman was preparing to make his first start. He was understandably nervous. He had completed just 11 career passes, and the stakes were enormous: No. 15 Iowa was about to play No. 10 Ohio State in Columbus. The winner would earn at least a share of the Big Ten title and a trip to the Rose Bowl. A week earlier, against Northwestern, the Hawkeyes had not only watched their undefeated record slip away but also lost their starting quarterback, Ricky Stanzi, to an ankle injury. Now the pressure was on.
Vandenberg played valiantly, completing 20 of 33 for 233 yards and two touchdowns, including a 10-yard fade to Marvin McNutt to tie the score late in the fourth quarter. And although Iowa went on to lose 27--24 in an overtime heartbreaker, a leader was born.
"That's the first time I really understood what a game week was like," recalls Vandenberg. "The one thing I remember was a lot of the veteran players having my back."
Nearly three years later the situation is flipped. Vandenberg, a human physiology major, is now a senior, and the rest of the offense is raw. And for the Hawkeyes to compete, Vandenberg again has to lead the charge.
"I need to be an even bigger leader than I was before," he says. "As you get older, you start to feel that urgency more."
His task won't be easy. The Hawkeyes have lost both McNutt, the program's alltime leader in receiving touchdowns and yards, and Marcus Coker, their troubled but talented running back, who transferred to Stony Brook last January after various disciplinary run-ins. Vandenberg will be expected to mentor underclassmen while bettering his 2011 totals of 3,022 passing yards and 25 touchdowns.
He'll also have to do it while learning an unfamiliar playbook. Longtime Texas assistant Greg Davis takes over as offensive coordinator, bringing with him a new set of strategies and schemes.
"It's been a challenge, and I wouldn't consider it a simple system by any means," says Vandenberg. "But I think we've caught on rather quickly. We've all been really sparked by his enthusiasm for the game."
Vandenberg arrived on campus the summer before his freshman year at a lanky 6' 3" and 195 pounds. Despite throwing for 7,701 career yards and setting an Iowa state high school record with 93 career passing touchdowns at Keokuk High, less than 100 miles from Iowa City, he wasn't sure how he'd fit in at the collegiate level. That's when Pat Angerer, a returning linebacker, approached him at a workout.
"He just pushed me [to] the ground and said, 'You wanna go to the pool, you big sissy?' " says Vandenberg, now a heftier 212 pounds. "I vividly remember thinking, It's gonna be a great year."